The Evolution Of Surveys and Focus Groups In The Advertising Industry

The onslaught of mobile text spam from political polling companies inspired me to share a few beliefs about truths in advertising.

I’ve spent a good part of my career in digital measurement and analytics, including the early days of comScore, then BuzzMetrics (acquired by Nielsen), SocialCode and, most recently, Realeyes.

The common thread? Premium value on the concept that passive behavioral measurement is most immune from bias, and yields the closest resemblance to truth. That includes prioritizing measurement that most closely resemble natural, real-world experiences for the people you’re measuring.

If you work in advertising, it’s easy and convenient to forget that some of the common techniques for measuring people not only are unnatural human acts, but inconvenient, intrusive and unpleasant. From pre-testing to mid-flight to post-campaign, advertisers commonly rely on surveys and focus groups — and even brain scans (or EEGs) in some high stakes cases.

Online brand surveys are hard to get right. They typically are completed by professional incentivized and prequalified responders who know how to game the system. They usually require people to apply heavy cognition in order to plow through rows of multiple choice answers to respond to questions they would never encounter in the real world.

Consider: “What is your likelihood to purchase XYZ brand in the next six months on a scale of 1-10?” or “Which brand do you recall seeing on XYZ social network in the past 72 hours?”

Indeed, post-flight brand lift and purchase intention surveys have little to no correlation to sales. Focus groups are interesting, though it’s difficult to replicate results. Brain scans in a laboratory are neat and insightful, though complicated, expensive and don’t scale well. Any in-person measurement technique is difficult during a pandemic.

Lastly, you have to ask: Like in public social media posts, how much image polishing is present in self-reported surveys when people know their responses will get shared with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people they don’t know? What if you knew your answers would be aggregated and published to millions of people?

Conventional measurement techniques (like surveys and focus groups) have their place. However, they’re difficult to execute well and advertisers abuse them too frequently to answer questions they have no business answering. Not all, but too many research and insights professionals deploy these contortionist techniques and then offload the results as natural human truths. Many researchers grew up this way, so it seems normal to them.

To be sure, advertising in the future will include interceptive and self-reported techniques like surveys and focus groups, though the status and power they once held will reduce from authoritative to informative and directional. The growing competition for attention will accelerate this trend while making quality results increasingly expensive.

In the future, truth in advertising will be achieved increasingly through triangulation of many measurement techniques. That will include a higher premium on passive, behavioral metrics linked together into a single-source view of the customer, with customer loyalty and lifetime profitability the ultimate North star. A great outcome of this scenario is that it unlocks tremendous predictive power. This is smarter marketing.


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