You probably know I’m a champion of research, particularly when it’s conducted by professionals without agendas and with the forethought of mitigating as many extraneous variables as possible to make the findings more representative. I first became exposed to the workings of Rich Thau during the outset of the pandemic, when he regularly conducted detailed surveys and focus groups with people all around the country, embracing the opportunity of Zoom to engage with people on their own turfs. A fellow researcher and friend who I’ve traveled often with in the past was working with Thau, and he reinforced that the inability to bring people to a traditional conference room setting was actually an advantage–it gave us the chance to conduct a de facto ethnography–see how and where they lived, what kind of environment they were in when they were online, whether or not they used filters or fake backgrounds. Thau also takes painstaking care to be sure his focus groups are as representative as possible of a true cross-section of lifestyles, demographies, psychographics and mindsets given the specifics of the study at hand. His biography is impressive.
Still, as AXIOS’ Eugene Scott reminded in an article dropped this week reflecting some of Thau’s latest work, there are caveats to focus groups which help to give them the checkered reputation they have with many who tend to dismiss them:
- A focus group is not a statistically significant sample like a poll, but the responses show how some voters are thinking and talking about current events.
But in my vast experience seeing faces, reactions and hearing color commentary when it relates to the cold, hard numbers that polls and surveys reveal are often as illustrative and impactful as the results of the larger, credible samples that are necessary for statistically significant results. I know that when I’ve dragged isolated and opinionated creatives and executives to a one-way mirror or screen to actually watch a group unfold, they at least react, and often with takeaways and a desire to follow up, at least considering how valid or not their own entrenched views might be.
So when Thau e-mailed a video highlight reel of his most recent groups yesterday, especially in light of our recent musing about how, to some Democratic leaders in particular, numbers seem to matter as much as words do now, I felt rather than try to debate with ostriches, they should see how other species are reacting to their rhetoric and obstinance.
Scott’s recap of Thau’s findings are illustrative and, to an extent, surprising:
Why it matters: Interviews with Arizona voters who pivoted from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020 suggested they are open to a third option other than the two candidates leading their parties.
- “With so much antipathy toward Trump and Biden, swing voters are off-the-charts receptive to a third alternative, especially one with such a recognizable name,” said Engagious president Rich Thau, who moderated the focus groups.
- “I like the Kennedys. I would look at the past with their family for the ones that … helped run this country. That would be my reason why I would like to choose a Kennedy to come back into office,” said Tina N.
- “He looks like he’s stumbling a lot, so there’s a balance issue,” said Jocelyn H., referencing Biden’s health.
- The group participants said they aren’t seeing many examples of the economic success that the Biden campaign is trumpeting via social media and ads in their community.
- “We’re not back. We’ve entered onto a good path back, and there’s still a lot more work to do,” said Steven F.Most voters said they would prefer Biden over Trump if next year’s race is a repeat of the 2020 election, but they have some real concerns about the incumbent.
But in case you’re wanting to take a victory lap in honor of FOJ, Thau’s recap in his e-mail strikes a cautionary tone about that side of the equation as well:
In a head-to-head Biden-Trump match-up, 8 take Biden and 3 take Trump
· When adding RFK Jr. into the mix, 6 take him, 5 take Biden, and 0 take Trump
Quote of the night from Jodi, 51, from Tempe: “Trump’s a shit show right now, and Biden’s old, and I’m not sure he could survive another term.”
Watch for yourselves:
No, not every answer they gave was based on fully accurate retention of facts. Anyone who spends more time than the average person online and/or engaging in political discourse will immediately point out these inconsistencies, and they wouldn’t be wrong to do so.
But as I’ve insisted on so many occasions, if your success is determined by how someone else’s reaction, it’s a damn good idea to shut up and pay attention to them.
I took particular pride in conducting my own impromptu groups, even when I wasn’t in a controlled environment, but experienced enough to ask the right people the right questions in the right way, much like Thau does. When a particularly disconnected general manager once requested a meeting with a colleague of mine to vent their frustrations with why a new interview show they were championing was getting beaten in ratings by a late night rerun of the MacNeil/Lehrer Report we suggested that this person, who typically traveled by limo and dined in high-class elitist East Side restaurants, discuss this over lunch. But rather than take this person up on their offer to have duck a l’orange, we hopped in a taxi and went down to the corporate headquarters, which at the time were undergoing extensive renovations. There were plenty of construction workers, and a goodly number of hot dog and knish vendors to serve them. We ponied up for one of each for each of us, and sat down near where a group of them were congregating. I asked if any of them watched TV (they all did) and what they liked on each channel. When they got to our channel, they were effusive in their praise for the sitcoms, our local news, even our kids shows, both current and from the past. When I casually asked if they had seen this new interview show, their mood changed. Unprompted, one particularly bold worker said “Ya know, it’s not a bad show, it’s just not something I want to see right after my nightly fix of M*A*S*H and right before I go to bed. I miss my ALL IN THE FAMILY reruns. I wish this show could just be part of the news; I like the news, and this could be something different to break up the stories”.
A few weeks later, after ratings deteriorated to the point where the show was now being beaten by a second PBS station on a regular basis, the interview show became part of a general newscast which aired several hours earlier, and the ratings increased fourfold. (nowhere near enough for it to be considered a hit, but far less of an embarrassment).
And yes, the next time we all had lunch, it was much more collegial, the setting was more elegant and, thankfully, the general manager picked up the tab.
So grab a hot dog and/or a knish and give a watch. And when I say I base my views on what real people think, you’ll hopefully have your eyes opened in the same way that that general manager did.
Until next time….