Written by Julie Babb
You’ve got eight strangers, an empty room and some cups of water. This is the answer to all your marketing questions? Old-school focus groups can shed light on consumers’ perception of products or campaigns, but they’re far from perfect. In fact, this approach to research has a big hurdle to overcome: None of us are as self-aware as we think we are. What’s more, one outspoken person can influence the way the rest of the group responds, skewing your results.
“There are consequences to asking people how they feel or what they like. The consequence is, you’ll be led to a false conclusion, because making people think about their preferences makes them stupid.” Malcolm Gladwell
“Focus groups are tough because people are never as smart about themselves as you think they are.” - Anath, Part and Sum Strategist
Understanding your customer beyond the boundaries of how they interact with your product is table stakes for modern marketers. We keep up on social media trends, read the consumer reports and hire them to help us understand them. What are their cultural influences? Media touchpoints? What are their biggest challenges? How does their world-view compare to other groups? The problem your product aims to solve - do they even have it? Are they informed? Do they care? The value proposition you have to offer, where and when and how does it fit in with their lives? These answers are not always easy to get, but they are critical. And while a well-run focus group can still be valuable in the right context, it shouldn’t be the only tool in a marketer’s arsenal.
The good news is, It’s never been easier to collect qualitative data from target consumers across the funnel. Here are some techniques to try.
When your mission is positioning, nothing beats a sit-down. Casual, yet well-prepared for. Professional, but comfortable. In-person is preferable, especially if you can visit the subject’s home—you’ll learn a lot from observing their environment and the way they interact with products IRL. If that’s not possible, a video call is next-best (it’s more intimate than a phone call). You want to establish rapport and encourage honest conversation, but not a debate or exchange of opinions.
The prep: First, define your market (“middle-income men, married, who travel occasionally for work and vacation”) so you can screen properly. Then put out a call and offer compensation, like a gift card, in exchange for participants’ time. Allow at least an hour for each interview—and some may run twice that! Prepare questions in advance with a focus on understanding behaviors and perspectives. “Tell me about the last time you traveled on a bus.” “When you have to plan a trip, what do you do first? Walk me through it.”
The process: If you can, have a colleague take notes (and watch for body language cues) so you can focus on the conversation. Alternately, record the session so you aren’t distracted by note-taking—remember to get permission first. Remind the interviewee that there are no right or wrong answers, and that your goal is to improve the X experience, so they don’t need to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings by being candid. As you work through your questions, don’t forget to ask follow-ups as they arise: “Tell me more about that flight. Why was it so enjoyable?” Finally, be sure to avoid explaining potential solutions or leading the interviewee toward insights that align with yours.
Putting it together: Write memorable quotes on cards or sticky notes, and sort them by theme to see what emerges. Or compile video/audio clips for easy sharing.
Another way to get to know your customer is to follow them around... without being creepy. Most people have a camera phone and no problem snapping occasional selfies, so photo diaries are a great way to peek into their lives (literally).
The prep: Keep the research period short (a few days to a week) to reduce the risk of subjects getting bored and forgetting to capture data, and make sure your ask is clear and focused. For example, you might ask participants to document interactions with their pet for a week. Inviting participants in waves will allow you to improve your instructions over time. Don’t be shy about interacting with your subjects during the week: raise their efforts and ask follow-up questions as needed. At the end of the week, offer an incentive after a one-on-one review of the diary materials.