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Grant Sanders viewing a recent focus group, not jumping through the plate glass window.

Grant Sanders: A Focus on Focus Groups

This post appears with permission of our Creative Director Grant Sanders and is one of many on his blog. Grant has spent several hours in dark focus group rooms and hasn’t jumped through the plate glass window – yet.

I volunteer on the communications committee of my local hospital on Nantucket. Our single source of island healthcare is in the process of building a brand new hospital and they wanted the guidance of community members with communications experience as they move forward with the project.

I’m not the only ad guy on the committee. In fact, one of the other members is former Ogilvy & Mather Chairman and CEO, Ken Roman. Perhaps you’ve read Ken’s book, The King of Madison Avenue. If not, you should.

At our first meeting, the subject of research came up. Committee members urged hospital staff to do some basic research to help discover what the organization’s various constituencies thought and felt and wanted. Ken suggested some basic, simple quantitative research. “Whatever we do, let’s not use focus groups as a substitute for a good quantitative study.” he said. “In focus groups, one or two people can skew the results.”

“Nantucket is actually one big focus group!” I added. The group laughed nervously. Having seen, more than a few times, one or two voices or a single letter to the editor skew a vote at our annual town meeting, the group agreed.

I can’t tell you how many focus groups I’ve been a part of. Fewer than 100, more than 50. And Ken is right, they are not always ideal. One or two voices can dominate a group if the moderator lets them. But I’ve also been part of focus groups where a client learned about a fatal flaw of a new product and cancelled the launch, saving millions. I’ve seen amazing insights come out of the mouths of carpenters and moms and PhDs. And I’ve seen the germ of a successful ad campaign spring to life somewhere between the M&Ms and the take-out Chinese food.

Focus groups are good for understanding how your customers think. But, interestingly, they are not always great at telling you what they think. That’s because people in groups tend to say things they think the moderator or the other respondents want to hear, not what they actually think and feel. They edit themselves, often unthinkingly — the Heisenberg principle in action.

Focus groups are also good for discovering how customers feel. A funny thing happens when you pay someone $50 and put a bowl of M&Ms in front of them and ask them to tell their story. They actually tell their story. A lot of people have great tales to tell, but they’ve never have had an opportunity to share. Or unload, as the case may be. One of our clients, a large research firm, recently told us of an instance where they were conducting a healthcare focus group in which the stories were so heartfelt and emotional that everyone on the other side of the mirror was literally in tears. And that’s a very valuable thing to experience because emotions are amazing triggers for creative executions. People think consumers make rational decisions, but they rarely do. If they did, donut shops and diamond retailers would go out of business overnight.

Creative testing? Please, no. When it comes to advertising, people in focus groups often try to speak as ad experts (we are all ad experts, right?) and not as experts at being a scientist, or a dad or an insurance agent (the reason they were chosen to participate in the first place). This is why it’s sometimes not a good idea to “test” creative ideas in a focus group unless you are 100% sure you can ask the right questions.

When a moderator says something like, “What do you think of this ad?” I have to resist the urge to jump through the plate glass window sending shards of glass flying into the room, my outstretched hands reaching for the moderator’s throat. Instead of asking what they think of an ad, I’d much rather know what an ad made them think. The distinction is small but enormously important. And getting to that answer is not always easy to do in a focus group.

Don’t test ads. Test fake ads. There are times we bring creative into focus groups, not to test the creative itself, but to see how the respondents will react to a creative stimulus. In such cases, the strength of the reaction, positive or negative, is often more important that the reaction itself. The respondents think they are giving feedback on an ad, but they are really giving us insights into how they make decisions. We faked them out.

Speaking of fake ads, we have other tricks up our sleeves. When we want to find out what messages a group of people will respond well to, we sometimes create a thing we call an ADLOB. It’s not an ad. It’s an AD-Like OBject. ADLOB. Get it? It’s a piece of communication that resembles an ad, but has no design, no cool photography, no witty headline (We actually have to work surprisingly hard to create flat-footed lines or ideas for ADLOBS), and no tagline. Sometimes ADLOBS have logos, and sometimes, where the logo would be, we place the word “LOGO.” We usually set ADLOBS in Helvetica medium, the world’s most ordinary and ubiquitous type face. We do all of this in an earnest attempt to not confuse respondents into thinking we are testing actual ads.

But despite the fact that we explain to the focus group participants that ADLOBS are not ads, someone always raises their hand and says, “These ads are so plain!” Yes. Thanks for your input.

So, to sum up, ask yourself these three questions before doing focus groups:
1. Do I want to know how my customer thinks? If yes, a focus group might be a good idea.

2. Do I need to know how my customer feels? If yes, book the focus group facility.

3. Do I want to know what my customer thinks? Hmmm. Well, there may be better ways get at this data. And they don’t involve a handful of M&Ms for dinner.

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