Many people, at some point in their lives, have had the opportunity to participate in focus groups, in which they are asked to gather and sample and openly discuss their reactions to products or proposed advertising campaigns. Market researchers find these sessions to be helpful as it enables them to watch reactions and gather unfiltered feedback to clients' offerings. And, in the end, participants receive a stipend for their time.
The question is: can, or will, online social media replace much of the work now being done with onsite focus groups? Is the market research data gathered online as accurate and telling as that gathered from face-to-face interactions?
Mercedes-Benz, for one, seems happy with what they're seeing so far. The company's market research vendor, TNS (Taylor Nelson Sofres, London), just announced it has employed a social media approach to build the Mercedes-Benz community website “Stars Insight,” the first online market research community in the German auto industry. Stars Insight takes advantage of social media and Web 2.0 dynamics to conduct consumer market research on its target market of drivers of compact cars between the ages of 20 and 45. The website includes questionnaires, moderated discussions and forums, chat, a media gallery, ideation contests, creative competitions, ratings, and comment areas. The site is built upon Acquia Commons social business software.
With Stars Insight, Mercedes also pilots test marketing materials, commercials and advertisements to their target community. In addition, ideation contests allow them to solicit key customers for desired features, support and services, while the rest of the community provides feedback through votes on what they like.
Not clear is whether Mercedes also still engages face-to-face focus groups, and what differences they may be seeing in the data coming out of each. The higher-end market Mercedes typically likes to reach is more likely to be more tech-savvy, and therefore more willing to engage in online discussions. How about products and services where social media isn't as big a part of peoples' day-to-day lives?
Also, there's the question of what may be missed if face-to-face interaction fades. If social media catches on and dominates as an alternative to focus groups, how will market researchers see the grimaces of pain on participants' faces as they are subjected to goofy or condescending advertising campaigns? Participant observation is a key part of focus group research. Maybe, online, participants will feel more comfortable in their relative anonymity and be even more vocal, as they are in chat forums -- we'll have to see.
(Photo Credit: BizTechnology.Wikispaces.com.)