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vocabulary workshop answers-A Right Brain Approach to Focus Groups

1. We are in the mental health profession, not the marketing business.

Focus groups are like marriage counseling. You want to sell, consumers want to buy, but poor communication and lack of understanding can stop a sale dead in its tracks much the same way they can undermine relationships. The idea is to tear down barriers and identify shared values and mutually supportive behaviors.
As in therapy, respondents come to focus groups to be heard, not just for the financial incentive. Life is tough and most people have few outlets to vent. Maybe they've just come from work where bosses, customers and co-workers have made unreasonable (as they perceive them) demands all day long. Perhaps they have nagging partners or out of control kids at home. Not to mention the daily bombardment of one-way communications, the commercial messages they can't help but see everywhere they look.

Focus groups are their time. Discussion guides need to be well planned, but there are immense benefits of "letting go" from time to time. Allowing respondents to babble from time to time presents an unparalleled opportunity to experience meaningful human moments. Understanding who your respondents really are and your brand's role in their lives is where qualitative really shines.

Consumer thought processes are not linear, and great focus groups don't always need to be either.

2. It's a journey, not a destination.

Just as no one gets "fixed" in therapy, at least not in the short term, it is unrealistic and counterproductive to expect to find "the answer" in focus groups.

"Validation," or "the winning concept" is not what we are after here. We work in a risky business, still more art than science. And without conflict and ambiguity, there would be no art.

One can scan the Cliff Notes for "The Brothers Karamazov," but true appreciation can only come from diving in and wrestling with the great issues of the human condition represented in this long book.

In art, as in life, sharply contrasting beliefs can be equally important and equally valid. In both cases, the answers, in and of themselves, are shallow without the insights and understanding that support them.

It's the wrestling, the journey, the struggle that matters.

Focus groups are the marketing equivalent of this process. A great intellectual and creative adventure where spontaneity and unexpected twists make everything all the more rewarding and the insights that emerge so much more valuable.

The renowned David Ogilvy quote on research cannot be cited too many times.

"I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination."

Ideas and solutions don't come from focus groups or any research. They come from people who have thought and felt deeply.

When approached as this "journey" or intellectual struggle, the focus group process can provide incredibly rich food for thought, serving as the foundation for smart, creative marketers to wrestle with and develop their ideas.

3. Be Honest

Qualitative research is the time for creativity and open-mindedness. It is not about forcing our opinions (or ads, logos and new product concepts) down the throats of our target consumers. It is about accepting responsibility and not assigning blame.

How many times have we heard the advertising agency art director, observing in the back room, say, "Those respondents are really stupid. They don't get the work."

It is not about us as marketers. It's about them as consumers. What we think is irrelevant in the long term, and the more defensive we are, the more we try to rationalize past decisions, the deeper we dig ourselves into a hole.

Given internal corporate politics and a hostile economic climate that breeds job insecurity, it's not easy for us to be honest with each other and ourselves. If something isn't working, we need to adjust our approach.

As Albert Einstein once said, "If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?"

In the long run, honesty - and humility - will pay off handsomely.

4. If it feels good you're probably on to something.

When the great Louis Armstrong was once asked to define jazz, he replied, "If you have to ask, you'll never know."

Like a mesmerizing Armstrong improvisation or Ella's scat singing, great marketing comes from the soul. True, we are commercial marketers first, not artists, but to minimize the influence of art and emotion in favor of an overly analytic approach can be a fatal mistake.

Bonds between brands and their consumers are no different from how any art form connects with its audience. Legendary brands are created with vision and inspiration, never with research.

But qualitative research, and focus groups in particular, present a unique opportunity to feel our way through works in progress as we are in the moment with target consumers and our professional colleagues.

5. Nothing is more important than great stimulus.

Focus groups are like the old saw about computers. Garbage in, garbage out. Consumers often know what they like and what they want, but can't always articulate their feelings. We need to provide them with the tools, or the vocabulary, to talk about these complex emotions.

Therefore, whenever exploring a new product concept, positioning, communications alternatives or any kind of innovation, it is essential to present a wide range of single-minded positioning concepts. Putting "stakes in the ground" provides an excellent starting point for meaningful, articulate discussion with respondents.
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6. Put respondents to work and take them out of the "Critic's Chair."

Getting respondents involved in exercises right away, even something as simple as a brand sort, helps get them going. The goal is to get respondents talking, preferably to each other, and not answering "yes" or "no" questions posed by the moderator.

This direct involvement grows exponentially in importance when exploring concepts.

A common complaint about focus groups is how easily they seem to transform consumers into know-it-all marketing critics. This should be no surprise. Handing out concepts for respondents to mark up or reading concepts one at a time for group feedback is an invitation to hold forth on the dos and don'ts of marketing.

This pitfall exists no matter how skilled the moderator, how well the guide is crafted or how fabulous the stimulus might be. Respondents can be instructed at length to express feelings, not judgments, to focus on the big picture and not the minutia, but by the time the second or third concept comes up for discussion, most have turned into judge and jury, confidently predicting that "people will (or won't) like this one."

Consider instead a workshop approach, where a group of eight might be split into "teams" of four. They are given a packet of concepts, anywhere from five to ten or more, and then charged with selecting the one or two most motivating concepts and bringing them to life.

We can ask them to name products, design packages, write commercials, choose a spokesperson that best personifies the product, or any other number of things.

A lot of good things happen with this approach. Most importantly, when respondents are deeply engaged with this challenge (which they seem to relish), they become passionate participants with a stake in the process, not aloof critics.
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As they talk to each other and think out loud, first as they feel their way through the concepts and then bring them their favorites to life, we are able to observe the consumer thought process up close and personal. The ultimate output of the creative exercise is not important, and expectations should not be high in that regard. But the experience of this psychological and creative journey is invaluable.

This approach also removes the temptation to "keep score." If we test ten concepts, two of them show remarkable promise but the other eight are laughed out of the room, does this connote failure? Or if ten of ten are received positively, is that an unqualified success?

Absolutely not. Depth of understanding and direction are the keys to great focus groups, not an unquantifiable scorecard.

7. Adapt Proactively

Unlike quantitative research, focus groups are a live, ongoing experience that can last a day, a week or more. This provides the opportunity to evolve, to absorb, consider, and adapt. The discussion guide and stimuli need to be reexamined after each day of research. Inaction and static thinking are your enemies. "Keeping it all the same so we can compare apples and apples" doesn't hold water. Best to push your thinking, aggressively. You can always keep the "old" concepts in your back pocket for the next market for a reality check or the apples to apples comparison, but being ready with something new that reflects learning to date will maximize the value of the research.

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