Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Focus Groups vs Communities of Purpose

The focus group is a much relied on tool in marketing, PR, politics - behaviour changing activity of all kinds.

But its role is disrupted and a layer of professionalism disintermediated by Communities of Purpose.

This morning I found (via twitter) Robert Scoble bigging up the response he got to a tweet on Twitter asking for advice on great accessories for his flip cam.

Robert said: "By the way, in just a few hours I got about 30 suggestions for the Flip accessory on Twitter. Is this the world's largest focus group? Yes!”.
But it's way better than that. What Robert was taking part in was an adhoc, self-forming community of purpose.

And there were two key elements which gave it an outcome with real value attached.

1. The community self organized around something they care about.
In this case its purpose was sharing best advice about the flip cam. Only a subset of Robert's followers cared enough to join in. This was likely driven by their desire to connect with other flipcam users (shared content about the flipcam and their desire to flag up ownership of it providing the glue) and to gain trust and authority within the larger community of purpose which has organized around Robert Scoble.

Odd to think of Scoble as a social object perhaps. But not wrong?

The second key element:

2. The real community of purpose here, the real creators of value, were the ones who cared enough about the purpose to drop everything in real time, right now.
In other words, a subset of a subset in any community is where it's ability to create value lies.

But this does not mean Reed's Law is wrong. No, because any additional node added to this network can still double its value. Why? The two sub groups are self-forming and self-organising.

So just because the purpose of one community subset does not tempt you to drop everything to join in, the next one may.

And unless you are connected you cannot contribute. Therefore just by being connected you add value to a network.

And the fact that you are connected may mean you are drawn in as the conversation grows and sustains.

As you see other people talking about it within your community you may follow the lead, lean forward and discover that if they are interested, you should be too.

And so, the difference between focus groups and communities of purpose?

1. Focus groups are centrally organized
Communities of purpose organize themselves around things they care about.

2. Focus group membership is centrally selected
Members of communities of purpose select themselves

3. In focus groups the centre makes the introduction and extracts the value
In communities of purpose members introduce eachother and share the value created

4. The composition of focus groups reflect the preconceptions of the central organizers
Communities of purpose are only limited in scope by the silo in which they form (btw, language counts as a silo).

5. Focus groups can't influence anyone outside the room in realtime.
Communities of purpose do.

Actually and quite simply, in all senses, communities of purpose do.
And that opens the doors to co-creation. Exactly what Robert was getting at in his subsequent tweets and response to my own.

“There's a reason behind the Flip question. I'm working with a supply-chain manager and he's showing me how we can disrupt the market about 1 hour ago from web.
“Imagine building a product, getting funding, getting feedback via Twitter, building it, marketing it, shipping it all within days. Wow.
“@davidcushman “I am shocked more companies don't design products on Twitter. After seeing the video we're filming now there will be more.”

Now. How will you go about organising your next focus group?


  1. Ad-hoc communities are indeed powerful, but what about reliability? Scoble gets lots of responses because, well, he is Scoble. A non-A lister might have to work their network harder. This is where private communities can really help.

  2. Hey Lou, thanks for posting. If the purpose is of sufficient interest even to a small group of people, their interest will begat interest across the network. Influence gets a leg up from broadcast, but the groundswell from 'less significant' nodes can have a greater effect on the outcome.
    Think mexican waves. Did the 'most important' person in the stadium start it. Even if they did, how did that make everyone else join in?

  3. @ david
    I agree.
    But I think the wave generated by Scoble is bigger than the one I can generate.
    On a positive side I trust much more Scoble than a representative of a business unit. :)

  4. Damn, I love this. I've read it twice and I think it's terrific. I'm a 28 year practitioner of focus groups, and know there will always be applications for that methodology, but this has the potential to provide a whole different opportunity for information gathering - where social media meets qualitative research.


  5. Hi Frank, thanks for your very encouraging words. I'd love to hear how you would go about applying the thinking, given your depth of experience.
    Lou, everyone is capable of creating a giant wave - just as Scoble is capable of making a tiny one. There's a chapter in my book about it: "How We Are Made Great". The blog post was originally on /message
    Thanks all for joining the conversation.

  6. Hi David,

    Thanks for an interesting post. This certainly offers another way to identify and reach out to those who are already passionate about your cause or product and willing to contribute. It can certainly be a quick and cost-effective way to get feedback and test out ideas.


  7. not read this one before.
    good work.



The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?