Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Focus groups...the more the better!

Recently I organised a full day's worth of focus groups for the company I work for. A chance to meet those who buy the products we write about, and who read the magazine that I edit.
10 hours. 5 individual sessions. Around 50 customers in total, all of whom would probably prefer to be on billable time (as we market to accountants) . 
I must be mad!
Me and my colleagues on one side of the 1-way glass (a little twitchy, wondering whether we were going to like what we heard), the customers sat in the plusher room and comfier chairs on the other (presumably ready to sock it to us). One plus for us though: we had wine in our fridge!
We'd hired a mediator via a local agency, the discussion guides were approved and ready to go, the first group now all sat in their chairs, intros done, the lights dimmed on our side of the glass, the final True Lies impression done by one of my co-workers, so we hit 'record' on the video camera.
Turns out, the sessions were extremely insightful.
Not everyone waxed lyrical about us, that's never going to happen, but we certainly had plenty of advocates and when they came up against the odd person who disagreed, it was genuinely interesting to see people argue over the pro's and con's of our work.
It's reassuring that the majority of people want to be nice, although you're always going to get someone who's come armed with an agenda - and you can spot them from the outset. We had one guy literally jumping around on his seat before he'd even removed his cagoule. When the mediator did the intros round, he announced his name as "I tell you now what the problem is". A terrible name, I thought. 
Then he took a pop at my magazine, firstly by labelling it "just a piece of marketing!" (er, thanks) and then proceeding to flick through every article, slapping the pages with the back of his hand as he went, highlighting which ones he believed were toilet paper. 
He would try to bring other members of the audience in too, asking if they agreed that a particular article was better off in the lavatory. Luckily he kind of isolated himself with this behaviour; I like to think it was because no one agreed, and that they thought the magazine was a thoroughly absorbent read, but my worst suspicions were simply that they wouldn't put flesh to such sharp, glossy paper stock.
Either way, early on I did find myself approaching the glass, climbing up on the shelf below the viewing pane, poking at the window looking into the adjacent room. Staring. Not blinking. 
Slate our hard work will you? I'd like to see you write a better article on the benefits of a spotless database ...mate!
Annoyingly though (or, rather, luckily) I couldn't step through the looking glass. I couldn't enter the forum to get my point across.  Instead, I decided to maintain an arms-folded stance - ├╝ber defensive - to see it out. That ought to do it.
Pleasantly this puckered stance wasn't needed for too long, as customers started to give examples of what they genuinely liked about our products, our marketing and, thankfully, our little magazine. My arms loosened, hands slipping casually into my pockets, I stepped back from window.
10 hours and 5 sessions seems like a hell of a long day when you think it's going to be an endless upper and downer, between smiling serenely at warm praise one minute, and then wanting to front flip, fully armed, through the glass the next.
But once you've decided mentally that you're just going to sit and listen, take the rough with the smooth to try and form an holistic and objective summary of what customers perceptions truly are (even those wearing a cagoule), you really do get a lot out of them.  And of course you don't have to do 5 sessions, but the more you hear and the more you see, the more solid your interpretation is, and you're not allowing one or two people to skew your summary either way. 
So as the last session closed and the tapes were collected, I entered the now-vacant customer area (via the side door, not the window). The mediator walked back in and I asked what her highlights were from the day. She said, "well, there was one person in a kind of anorak..."