The Death of the Focus Group? At Invoke Solutions, Apple Vet Makes Market Research User-Friendly, for the Surveyors and the Surveyed

3/11/09Follow @wroush

Focus groups are such a standard part of our market-driven culture that they’ve long since become the subject of parody. Decision-makers are seen as being afraid to act without consulting them; surely, no political party would pick a candidate, no legislator would introduce a big policy initiative, and no movie studio would green-light a big-budget film without focus-grouping it first.

But while they may be ridiculed, the truth is that business organizations—especially consumer product companies—still spend quite a bit of money on focus groups. Such ensembles are considered a crucial way to identify products people will buy and weed out bad ones before they’re brought to market.

The rise of the Internet, however, has created faster, cheaper alternatives to the classic eight-people-around-a-table-and-a-whiteboard scenario. Since 2000, Waltham, MA-based Invoke Solutions has been one of the companies running online surveys that, in effect, let market researchers assemble focus groups that are hundreds or thousands strong.

Until recently, Invoke’s surveys were still real-time affairs, conducted at scheduled times. Groups of researchers huddled in control rooms, administering questions, interacting with participants directly, and watching the data pour in. Last year, though, Invoke introduced a new “asynchronous” survey system called Engage that allows volunteers to participate in market studies at any time they choose. And in January, it enhanced the system with new reporting and analytics software that lets Invoke’s clients view and explore the results, via instant PowerPoint presentations and other types of visualizations, as they come in.

Invoke’s president and CEO Ben Cesare, who came by Xconomy’s office a couple of weeks ago, says the response to the new reporting software has been “thrilling.” Within 60 days after Invoke rolled out the Engage Analytics tool, 120 Fortune500 clients were already using it, says Cesare, who joined the company in 2005 and became CEO a year later. The veteran of Apple Computer, Psion, and Agile Software says he’s “not a research guy”—meaning he isn’t steeped in the strategies of giant market-research firms like TNS or Ipsos. But he says he does understand “innovation that works, capturing the information that matters. That’s what I really care about, and that’s what attracted me to Invoke.”

Ben CesareCesare (pronounced like “Caesar”) argues companies need to embrace market research systematically, the same way they’ve embraced enterprise resource planning (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM). In fact, he’s got his own three-letter term for what Invoke does—RDM, for research data management.

During his visit, Cesare gave me the basic download about the venture-funded, 55-employee company (which raised a $7 million round one year ago) and its latest accomplishments in the young discipline of RDM. But I started out asking him about the competition—the old fashioned focus group. A greatly abridged version of our conversation follows.

Xconomy: What’s wrong with focus groups?

Ben Cesare:
The problem with focus groups is that they are time-consuming and expensive and they give you a small sample size. You could spend a month and a half flying around to six cities and talk to eight people in each city and then find that only three of those eight do all the talking. Are you going to make a call based on the opinions of 18 people? We’ll put you in front of 1,000 people over a week at a fraction of the cost, and all the answers will be believable. There’s no groupthink, no bias in the room. You’re not traveling.

X: So why do companies keep doing them?

BC: You know the old saying—nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. There’s a lot of safety in the same old stuff. People will say, “I have to do my focus group, I have to look those eight people right in the eye.” I submit the opposite. My point of view is that people will … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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