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Rest in Peace, Mr. Merton

For those among you who are marketers, a moment of silence is in order. Robert King Merton, inventor of the focus group, died last month aged 92:

In 1941 Paul Lazarsfeld, a statistician at Columbia University in New York, got together a group of people representing a typical radio audience and gave them some buttons to press as they listened to various programmes. He was then able to work out which programmes had the most appeal. Helping him at these sessions was Robert Merton, who had recently joined Columbia. At the end of each session Mr Merton asked any in the group who did not need to dash away to stay behind and discuss the radio shows in some detail: they should focus on why they had liked this bit of the show, and not that.

Although it is risky to claim that anyone invented anything, it is generally accepted by sociologists that Mr Merton's were the world's first focus groups, a research tool now used widely in commerce and increasingly in politics.

Focus groups have been much abused over the years. As a tool for developing innovative new products, they can be disastrous -- people will simply say, in so many words, that they want more of what they have now for less money. But as a tool to refine a product concept, or to decrease the chances of shipping a flop, focus groups can be quite useful. (And yet, with this in mind, I look at the Pontiac Aztek and shake my head.)

So rest in peace, Mr. Merton, and thanks for your contribution to the world of marketing.

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