Copy testing and focus groups misunderstood (and misused)

Develop, Don't test. How to use Copy Testing and Focus Groups More Effectively.


Although the debate about ad testing has been raging for decades, and there have been many attempts to innovate on the process, there still seems to be an increasing chorus of brands and agencies challenging the pitfalls of both focus groups and copy testing.


The general frustration today seems to be a shared feeling of ineffectiveness, from the outdated methodologies to the disruptive timing of the test during the creative process.


It isn’t a matter of whether to test or not. Most research supports the benefits of focusing on stages of validation, feedback and predictive analysis.

But rather...


It is more a matter of understanding when and how to ‘test’, although many recoil at this term, with a focus group and using the outcome as a guide, rather than a go/no-go stage, especially early on in the process.


To use the sentiments of Malcolm Whiteman mentioned in an article titled ‘Back to the future’ who said:


‘’How doing the right thing (the evaluation) in the wrong way, and at the wrong time, ultimately leads to disappointment and frustration''

To many, testing at early stages of pre-production often leads to the biggest misuse of the methodologies (and most of the agency side complaints). It is a shame because, if used correctly, early stage exploration could lead to major breakthrough improvements and new directions for the campaign to take.


The belief is that we’re essentially killing the egg before it’s even hatched-or had a chance to walk.


So, should we believe such claims as ….’’The focus group is dead’’  and does it really “kill the creative process”?.


Copy testing and focus groups  


With many questions surrounding its relevance in the 21st century, it’s important to understand why there has been so much scrutiny.


Traditionally; It is the process of taking a TVC and testing its effectiveness through the use of consumer focus groups and surveys before final production (animatic, photomatics, etc), then providing a score; say a 6 out of ten for recall.


However, often in early stage testing there are no illuminating insights for the brand and agency like:

There is no emotional connection with the audience, there may be some cultural insensitivity, the characters don’t match up to the audience it’s speaking to. Oh...and the ad doesn’t communicate clearly that it’s about your new product.

We don’t always get all this insight from a number. Because when you receive a number you still remain half-knowing...when you receive insight that evokes more of an emotive response, then you better understand why something isn’t working.

Image source:  Zanele Maisela

Image source: Zanele Maisela

The Impact of Digital on Copy Testing Expectations


Copy testing is also being viewed in a new era of expectations: The speed of the current digital analytics software and marketing dashboards has led many clients to expect ad testing results in similar turnaround times.


This has given rise to several companies trying to automate the process.  

As a result, two things have emerged:


1)  CMO’s and brand managers either go more on instinct or gut feel when it comes to a new TVC or radio ad




2)  More clients are using biometrics and neurological techniques that help better judge consumers behavioral patterns and get results that look more like modern day marketing analytics.


"Old fashioned" focus groups still can and do play a major role, if implemented aside a more data driven approach.


However The problem is:

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Still Room for Qualitative Ad Development (and testing)


There needs to be a better understanding to how copy testing can be used to bring about the most impactful insights at any stage of the creative process. The real value qualitative research can bring lies in its ability to investigate the emotive responses of consumers to tease out the metaphors and intangibles they build with brands and communications.


That means the questions posed to them must evoke responses that create meaningful insight beyond numbers and testing scores.’s Approach to Early Stage Create Campaign Development

There is no argument that agencies are rushing to become innovative and be able to give results that clients crave. Amongst this rush to re-invent, we’ve put forth our own unique approach (called Sense Check) which essentially involves using panels of creative professionals as a ‘focus group of peers" or "creative consumers".


The difference with creative professionals is that they are able to project what the final advertisement will look like even at the early photomatic/storyboard or script stages.


They are also able to have a bit of predictive ability to understand whether the positioning and big creative idea will resonate with the target market. One big benefit is their ability to give actionable feedback that can be used during the production process.


To address the pains of clients and alleviate agency pressure to deliver, there will be a need to innovate, but in doing so, checks would have to be implemented so as not to compromise on quality feedback and effective results.


Contact us to learn more at