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Want to win over millennials? USF St. Petersburg opens focus group business within marketing school

Elliott Wiser, a marketing and media professor, sits alongside Teresa Conover, an accounting professor, inside the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's consumer insight and sales lab. The round table is used to hold focus groups. (Courtesy of USF)
Elliott Wiser, a marketing and media professor, sits alongside Teresa Conover, an accounting professor, inside the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's consumer insight and sales lab. The round table is used to hold focus groups. (Courtesy of USF)
Published Oct. 31, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Elliot Wiser sits at the head of a long table with a half dozen sets of eyes peering his way.

Everyone surrounding him is at least half his age — if not younger. But that's the point.

Wiser is heading a focus group made up of millennials and Generation Z participants inside a new lab at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Wiser, a faculty member best known as a former top executive for Bay News 9 and 10News WTSP, expects most of the future focus groups to have a similar makeup, depending on which local company is taking advantage of the university's new consumer insight and sales lab. Regardless of the company Wiser, now a marketing faculty member, said they're all likely after the same thing:

Unraveling the wants, thoughts and spending patterns of millennials — usually 22- to 37-year-olds — and the generation behind them, "Gen Z."

Buying power is shifting from baby boomers on to millennials, who make up the largest portion of the labor force and are expected to outnumber boomers in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center.

Boomers grew up with Sears catalogues and television commercials.

"Millennials grew up with the internet," Wiser said. "And Gen Z? They have always had their phones."

So here lies why the generational shift matters — the way shoppers consume has changed, so the way companies market needs to change, too. That's what the new insight lab intends to help sort out, eventually using the data it collects to create a research and marketing resource, Wiser said.

"What makes the shift more interesting is that millennials are more likely to be at transitional points in their lives," said USF marketing professor Michael Luckett. "We're creatures of habit, so once we establish patterns of shopping we are likely to stick with those until we have a life-changing event."

Events such as: graduating college, moving, getting married, starting a family.

"Millennials are experiencing these transition points at a much faster rate," Luckett said. "The opportunity to break into their purchasing habits is much greater."

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So even though boomers might have more spending money as a whole, marketers want to win over millennials to help their companies sustain business in the long run.

Wiser has hosted a group looking strictly at millennial and Gen Z media consumption habits. A Gen Z-er — loosely defined as someone born between the late 1990s and early 2000's — is likely to get news from social media like SnapChat. One participant admitted she'd never read a newspaper. Another said he seldom watched local news, largely because he pays for streaming services rather than cable.

Those shifts have left marketers using techniques that weren't popular even five years ago: Think things like companies who sponsor popular Instagram users to take photos wearing their clothes or drinking their weight-loss shakes.

Wiser said that the university's lab charges companies $6,300 to use their focus group services. The USF lab team partners with a company that specializes in finding the appropriate demographic of participants. Wiser moderates the discussion in one room, while the heads of the company sit next door with another professor and watch the discussion unfold on two large monitors.

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"There's a lot we can do with the technology, 90-inch screens and seven embedded microphones," said Wiser, who spent the bulk of his career at the helm of Bay News 9.

It was a focus group during his time at the 24-hour local news network that prompted the name "Klystron 9," which likely sounds familiar to anyone who has checked a Tampa Bay weather forecast. Wiser estimates by now, he's hosted well over 100 different focus groups.

But in the new lab, which started accepting clients in late August, he has done about three so far — including a session with the Tampa Bay Rays. That session, however, focused on participants aged 45-65.

Wiser said he works to make the sessions feel relaxed and conversational. He tries to keep any one participant from dominating conversation; he always leaves the group to talk alone for a period of time near the session's end. Wiser doesn't tell participants which company is hosting the focus group nor its purpose — though they may figure it out by the end of the session.

They also can show commercials to consumers, giving them buzzers to mark the moments in an ad they don't like. He writes up a final report and supplies the video recording to the client.

"This is how you find out what people say about your company when you're not in the room," Wiser said.

And in an ever changing retail climate, that could be more important than ever.

Contact Sara DiNatale at 727-893-8862 or at Follow @sara_dinatale.