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Fifty shades of focus groups

Global popularity. Your name on everybody’s lips. Products flying off the shelves. This is the dream of just about every entrepreneur, artist and inventor the world over. Unfortunately, leveraging this dream into a financial reality is something that only seems to ever happen to a select few.

Going on some past success stories, the most obvious method to gaining potential traction in your respective industry is simply to give people what they want. The almost inexplicable popularity of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy (and its subsequent wave of imitators) can be partially traced back to the previously niche nature of female erotica; the Twilight fan fiction-turned-publishing phenomenon harnessed a widely untapped market and brought it into the mainstream.

Whether or not you approve of her unimaginative, simile-heavy, juvenile writing, E.L. James is the clear winner; her books still dominate the bestseller charts over a year after its initial release, along with a host of rapidly produced cash-ins from other publishing houses, each more formulaic than the last. Her reputation as a writer is less than stellar (with critics savaging the unsubtle, anti-feminist content of her books), but it is just as easy to perceive her oeuvre as less of a literary work and more of a business venture. Through that lens, the voracious nature with which women have purchased the books paints James as an unmitigated success. And perhaps literary greatness was never the author’s goal; Fifty Shades of Grey has been encapsulated in a Guardian review as “unerotic, but savvy”.

Change “unerotic” to “unoriginal” and that epigram can be applied to almost all mainstream entertainment, regardless of arguments over artistic merit. There is a reason that all major pop music, films and television shows are so polished; each are subject to extensive focus group testing. And while we have applauded crowdsourcing initiatives in the past, there is a marked difference between what sites like Kickstarter and Pubslush are trying to achieve, and the purpose of focus groups, which are by their very nature designed to represent the masses. For this reason they are ultimately unsuited to fostering creativity on any grand scale; more often than not the results are an incrementally altered reproduction of something which has already been successful.

To stand out as a leader and trend setter rather than simply a follower either as an author, entrepreneur, or budding film-maker, a more challenging approach is required – to think outside of what has been accomplished before, identify a new need, and offer people something which they never thought they wanted. While Fifty Shades of Grey may have been successful for initially shining a light on a previously niche market, the story that follows is hardly filled with innovation.

Years ago, the Sony Walkman received a lukewarm reaction from focus groups. Why, after all, would anybody want to carry music around with them when they have it at home? “The consumer can only tell us what is,” Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony, famously said. “They cannot tell us what will be”. One iconic 21st Century brand which has taken these words to heart is Apple, which has made constant resourcefulness and ingenuity a cornerstone of its corporate culture.

Group testing is, no doubt, a core component in Apple’s product development process – but they have mastered the balancing act of combining originality with broad appeal. With 40 million global sales and counting, E.L. James has pretty much nailed the “broad appeal” aspect. But in this writer’s humble opinion, originality will always be in short supply in a product which started its life as a copy of an already highly derided and criticised franchise.

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