In this new age of social media, traditional market research has taken a beating. Influencers like serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk (Gary Vee) extol the importance of getting out and talking to their customers personally while countless memes of Steve Jobs’ quip against market research “customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them,” are shared endlessly online.

To some extent, they have a point. Gary Vee’s “back to basics” approach of getting out in the real world and speaking to consumers makes sense. Technology has made it so easy to hide behind our screens that, just like the Wizard of Oz, we tell our customers what we want without giving them a chance to get to know the person behind the curtain. Nor can we get to know them.

With Jobs, I also agree, because he is Steve Jobs. The problem with that is, you and I aren’t Steve Jobs so the rules may look a little different for us.

The potential danger, however, with this logic is the extent many entrepreneurs and marketing professionals are taking this advice while poorly executing the concept. Getting out and talking to consumers is the definition of market research. The difference being we have tools and processes in place to ensure we gather feedback from a representative sample that is not biased and is reflective of your target market.

Friends and Focus Groups

Don’t get me wrong. It’s exciting to see entrepreneurs start to realize the benefit and necessity of conducting market research. However, what ends up happening most of the time, especially among startups with limited funds to invest in market research, is that the people they’re talking to aren’t target consumers, they’re friends. If not their direct friends, they are talking to their network and friends of friends. Sure, it’s fun getting together over drinks and talking about interesting topics. But sorry to break it to you, your friends are not a focus group.

Let me tell you why:

1. We’d all like to think our friends are as diverse as a United Colors of Benetton ad, but chances are, they’re not. According to the Pew Research Center:

“Individuals tend to have more friends among their own race group than they do among races that are different than their own.”

And this is just race. When we look at other demographic factors such as income, education, and religion, our friends look at a lot more like us than we think. Talking to them about your business idea, brand, or marketing idea may yield some good anecdotal feedback, but it is like talking to yourself as your friends and network likely share a similar world view to you. Business decisions based on insight provided by people that think and act like you is never a good idea. The U.S. is incredibly diverse, which means your potential consumers will be, too. So, hearing from a representative sample of that group is essential to obtaining an unbiased viewpoint that you can apply to your business model.

2. A key component of focus groups is the moderator, a role often overlooked by amateur “street” researchers. The way one asks questions to potential consumers is critical when conducting a focus group. Say you are an entrepreneur launching a product or service or a brand manager in charge of selling a brand’s narrative, you are likely invested in that product or service which will more than likely be reflected in the way you ask a question.

For example, the difference between “what do you think of this product I am launching?” vs. “what do you think of this product?” may seem trivial, but the questions are very different. When a person knows you are personally invested in something, the social pressure to please is increased, and the response you get is not likely to be an honest one. Moderators are trained to leave their personal opinions and biases at the door and elicit deep responses from focus group respondents.

While I agree that anyone in charge of a brand or marketing campaign should be out talking to consumers, know that your street research is going to be full of biases. Without a representative sample, your research is missing certain cultural nuances that could be the difference between success and failure. That’s heavy but real. Talking to your friends may be a good place to start, but taking their word as truth can be detrimental to your business or brand.


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