Before the Rev. Harry Brunett opened his alternative-to-church fellowship in Columbia in 2001, he tested four prototype services in front of various groups. Don't hold services in a church, he was told, use a more neutral location. Speak from the heart, the participants said, and definitely don't cut the silent meditation part.
"That's the best way we found to make sure we were touching the spiritual nerve," said Brunett, who plans to use such focus-group techniques over the coming year as he sets up a second fellowship in Baltimore. "The focus group [is] absolutely key in what we ended up providing the community."
Focus groups, in which carefully chosen target customers review a product being developed, have been a fixture of the consumer goods industry for a half-century. But in recent years, the practice has migrated beyond the corporate realm to nonprofit groups, governments, politicians, litigators, even graduate students in the hunt for data for dissertations.
"They've become just totally universal," said Thomas L. Greenbaum, a Connecticut researcher who has published four books on the topic. "I don't think there's anybody who doesn't use them today."
While polls and surveys of large populations remain the statistically preferred research method, they don't offer insight into why people behave or believe as they do.
"One of the dangers in all of research is experts tend to think they know what's best," said Richard A. Krueger, a professor emeritus and senior fellow at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches courses in research methods. "What focus groups do is help get in touch with the users."
Last year, press aides for Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire began calling her "Chris" in public documents reportedly because focus groups suggested that she soften her image.
The late Johnnie Cochran told a TV audience in 1996 that focus group feedback helped his legal team decide to keep O.J. Simpson off the stand during his murder trial a year earlier.
And McDaniel College in Westminster, when deciding to forgo the name Western Maryland College, several years ago, summoned focus groups of alumni dating back to the 1960s to test new name possibilities.
"Focus groups kind of come and go and I think they always have to be in perspective," said Peggy Fosdick, a spokeswoman for McDaniel College.
"We would never make a quantitative decision marketing-wise based on a focus group, but I think you can get a reading of some perceptions," Fosdick said.
In the groups, a moderator will typically present a collection of about six to 12 people with a product or a topic and ask questions designed to elicit certain information: why alumni aren't donating much, why a soft drink sells unusually well in one area, what parts of a presentation a lawyer should change to sway a jury. Meanwhile, clients watch the goings-on from behind two-way mirrors or videoconference devices.
Participants are carefully selected using strict criteria, and usually paid an average of about $75 for two hours' work. Beer commercials aired during the Super Bowl today, for example, were largely vetted a year ago by white men between the ages of 21 and 28 - the target audience, according to researchers. For the most part, 60-year-old grandmothers were not invited.
"[You want] the demographics to mirror the demographics of the target market," said Elyse Gammer, an advisory director at the National Marketing Research Association in Connecticut. "You would not go to the West Coast to start a new cigarette. That's the health-nut coast."
The focus group technique traces its roots to World War II, when sociologists were studying military morale and trying to gauge the effectiveness of U.S. propaganda messages.
Academics were initially skeptical of the practice and shunned it "because it didn't look elegant," said Krueger, the Minnesota professor. "It had the look of contamination where people would influence each other in these discussions."
But companies latched onto it as the rise of consumerism and television fed the need to gather information on new products aimed at new audiences.
Well-dressed women in pumps and white gloves were initially sent door-to-door in the 1950s and '60s to talk with homemakers about how they use different products. The need to broaden the pool of information led companies to focus groups, telephone polling, and eventually mail and online surveys. About $3 billion was spent on market research in the United States last year, Gammer estimated.
The industry has had trouble recruiting for focus groups lately, though, as the population becomes more protective of its privacy and mistakenly lumps market research with telemarketers, who try to sell products rather than gather data. Some question the value of focus group information altogether.
PepsiCo Inc. reportedly launched a failed reduced-carbohydrate soda called Pepsi Edge during the Atkins diet craze of 2004 based on positive focus group feedback. Negative focus group feedback, meanwhile, did not deter Coca-Cola Co. in 1985 from launching "New Coke," which also flopped famously.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Matthew Grunwald, who works for a Washington state marketing firm.
"On the one hand, it's a really powerful tool to get insight into consumers' minds. On the other hand, you never know what you'll come up with" or how it will be used by clients.
Some experts point out that the research is not statistically significant and can't be scaled up to predict trends or group behavior - although clients often try to do so.
"I don't care how much you say you can't do that ... sometimes my words fall on deaf ears," said Ronald J. Matlon, a consultant to trial lawyers who is based in Phoenix in northern Baltimore County. "When I first started consulting, [I based advice on ] what was in my head. But I'm not a jury. I thought maybe we ought to get a group of people together," said Matlon, who began using focus groups in trial research 25 years ago.
The first such groups were relatively unsophisticated, often made up of university students, and Matlon and others used them sparingly. But over the past decade, the practice matured.
For the past three years, the American Trial Lawyers Association has used focus groups as mock juries to train new lawyers. And Matlon, who conducts about two groups per month, said the research for trial attorneys now makes up the "the dominant portion" of consultants' work.
"The interesting thing is that over the years I've seen many of these projects lead to settlement talks; many of these cases don't actually go to trial," Matlon said. "I think that happens because the lawyers who do these projects realize sometimes there are insurmountable problems."
Not just for Products
Education: When Laureate Education Inc., formerly known as Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., searched for a new name, the Baltimore online and foreign university company held multiple focus groups in Mexico and Chile to help narrow the list.
Politics: During Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, he commissioned more focus groups than any other candidate on topics including how to deal with Gennifer Flowers' accusations and charges of draft-dodging, according to Luntz Research and Strategic Services.
Legal affairs: Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, the prosecutor during Ray Lewis' murder trial, held a mock-trial focus group to gauge his case. (The mock jurors found the three defendants guilty; the real jurors did not.)
Religion: The Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, based in Columbia, uses demographic data to identify "hot spots" for new church locations, then holds focus groups in those areas.
Government: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held focus groups to find out if people were reading product labels, such as "poison" warnings.
[ Sources: Sun research]