In this era of rivalry between humans and machines, the inherently human focus groups may seem untouchable. However, whilst they are no doubt an invaluable tool, are they telling us too little too late? Richard Maryniak, Chief Insight Officer at Black Swan Data offered up a valuable perspective at this year’s Festival of Marketing. Focus groups provide a raw and emotional perspective, which is so far unparalleled by even the best AI, yet fundamentally they can only reveal to us what is already in people’s minds. After all, a small sample of people will only reflect ideas, tastes, and opinions which have already reached mainstream.

Data science, AI, machine-learning, [insert buzzword here] – these technologies are constantly evolving and are capable of analysing online conversations in the hundreds of millions. Unlike in focus groups, these conversations are unguided and organic; they can reveal the unknown – how can we discover the unknown in focus groups when we don’t know what to ask? Perhaps most importantly though, the sheer scope of listening capable by AI can capture even the first whisper of a trend or culturing shift forming on the fringes of society.

Take turmeric, for example, the formally neglected yellow powder which has found its way into everything from Starbuck’s lattes to facemasks. Only many months after the trend first began is it possible to show a spike on Google trends or uncover turmeric’s unique appeal in focus groups. But no brand wants to jump on the bandwagon or ride an already surging wave.

Of course, that’s not to say that humans are obsolete; in the words of Warren Buffet, “Predicting rain doesn’t count; building arcs does.” Uncovering a trend at first conception is a powerful place to be for any brand or agency and it’s up to us as humans to take this knowledge and bank it big time.

So what does Richard Maryniak, an AI expert, think the next big thing will be? Well ladies and gentlemen; Cannabis oil … so whilst humans and machines hash it out, I’ll be sipping a cannabis latte.