By Andrew Kernahan, Senior Consultant, London
Focus groups have been an integral part of politics for decades. Often scorned by more serious-minded politicians and those who place policy before personality, focus groups reached their pinnacle during the New Labour years and remain ingrained. Yet with a perceived overuse of focus groups over direct voter engagement and the Internet opening up new and instantaneous ways of engagement, have we reached peak focus group-politics?
With the 2015 election set to be the most digital to date and the first where social media could really make an impact, focus groups – like the two party system – are not the force they once were.
As with the increased importance of personality in politics, focus groups are largely an American import. They first took hold during Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, with the likes of Gordon Reece and Tim Bell using them to mould Mrs Thatcher’s image and messaging. From the 1980s onwards focus groups grew as politics became more personality-based, with Labour leader Neil Kinnock being advised by focus group fans Peter Mandelson, Philip Gould and other architects of the New Labour era. In the 90s, focus groups were used to hone in on different political tribes, be it ‘Mondeo Man’ or ‘Worcester Woman’ and helped New Labour transition from a political party to a brand.
This over reliance on style over substance has contributed to political dissatisfaction, seen with voter apathy and the rise of protest parties. Politicians nowadays are conscious of the need to sound authentic and independent-minded, highlighted by the rise of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. The penny has dropped for parties who now realise the importance of genuinely understanding voters’ lives, something better achieved by knocking on doors rather than through a focus group.
The need for authenticity has coincided with the rise of the Internet, which has opened up new and exciting ways to communicate with voters and get their views. Facebook and Twitter can give instant and measurable reaction to speech or policy and created new ways for parties to engage.
Clicktivism means it has never been easier to start a campaign or sign a petition. Yet with all the opportunities the Internet brings, there is always the sense that only a portion of the electorate can be reached online. Whilst politicos may follow an Ed Miliband speech on Twitter, a casual floating voter so crucial to determining an election does not.
The need to understand what ordinary voters think and feel and how they react to politicians and their policies means focus groups will feature in the 2015 campaign. However, the increasing need to sound authentic and the advent of the Internet means that focus group politics has lost some of its importance as politics continues to evolve – I for one welcome that.