Within the walls of an advertising agency, the line between those who support focus group research of advertising and those who do not is very defined. You are on one side or the other, there is no “maybe.”

Those who are “for” creative testing say: 

“We are not our target audience. We need to hear directly from the people we are trying to reach to understand if the message resonates with them.”

“We need to understand if there are any parts of the ad that is offensive or resoundingly positive.”

“We can use the feedback to tweak language and images, and strengthen the impact.”

Those who are “against” creative testing say:

“Focus groups only result in group think. The loudest person is the opinion everyone agrees with.”

“Focus group participants don’t understand storyboards. They will love it once it is produced. No need to waste time testing.”

“This is about the CREATIVE. They don’t understand the nuance. I am not changing my creative vision to the whim of a focus group.”

If it wasn’t obvious by my examples, let me be clear: I fall firmly on the “for” side of the line when it comes to creative testing. 

Creative testing with focus groups is not meant to “vote” on one concept verses another. It is not meant to use the participants in a brainstorm session to create their own concepts. And never should the outcome of one focus group determine the direction for a campaign. 

Admittedly, the outcome of focus groups is only as good as the moderator of those groups. (Full disclosure: I moderate focus groups and report on the findings, with recommended actions.) technique and approach from a moderator can keep a group on task for message testing rather than creative brainstorming, he or she can silence a dominant participant without insulting that person, he or she can prove for the why beyond just the what. And good moderators can recognize the game-changing feedback from the irrelevant chatter. 

I understand why people who have had poor moderators think that creative testing is a waste of time. But with a strong moderator and a clear objective, talking to your target audiences can serve to make our advertising messages much more impactful. 

To test creative or not, that is the question. I say, test the creative.