Focus Group Moderators May Have Lost the Election, but are Still Relevant in Market Research


By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

In a recent blog post, my good friend and colleague, Walt Dickie, has taken the success of Nate Silver's data-focused and accurate prediction of last night's election outcome and the failure of so many pundits to do the same as a metaphor for the power of big data and the twilight of the focus group moderator. His argument is that hard-eyed, statistically-significant data, modeled and analyzed properly, trumped instinct and expertise of many pundits and their years of experience feeling the winds of voter moods and sentiments. This is clear death knell for the focus group and its moderator who also applies years of experience and instinct to interpreting the often opaque feelings of consumers.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for this agreement, particularly after listening to the hours of hot air expended by pundits over the past few (many?) months. I begin to have sympathy for the marketing managers who have to listen to countless presentations of findings from focus groups.

What is more, election night provided another example of the triumph of big data. I was able to read a table this morning that gave average wait times at the polls in different states. The data was the product of an analysis of all the Tweets yesterday. I certainly could not have done that, accurately or not, with focus groups. I am not certain I could have deployed a traditional survey to yield information so quickly.

But, does this all provide a hint of the demise of focus groups and skilled moderators? I don't think so.

In the first place, not all pundits failed in their prediction of the election outcome. A scoring of the punditry revealed that left-leaning pundits were remarkably accurate. In fact, there were a few with better accuracy than Silver. Right-leaning pundits? Well, most were considerably wide of the mark. When I talk to consumers in a qualitative setting and bring my expertise and instincts to bear upon the comments, I believe I am being objective, as objective as I can be. That objectivity results, I believe, in reliable insights.

Silver's much praised accuracy has limitations. He predicted the outcome of this specific election. He was asked to predict very specific and well-understood behavior taking place at a specific time. Rarely, as a focus group moderator have I had to answer so circumscribed a question. Rather, I am asked to develop hypotheses about the reactions of consumers in a range of possible futures. What are the attitudes and emotions of consumers that tell me how they might respond to a new entrant in a category? A new service they have never seen before? A message about an unheard of benefit of a well-known product?

Focus groups, conducted by sensitive, experienced analysts, can provide this kind of direction to marketers. And, they will for the foreseeable future.