Test More Than Messaging: 4 Creative Ways to Use Online Focus Groups

  • Darshan Mehta
  • October 31, 2017

It’s the worst kept secret in marketing: Pre-testing messaging boosts sales four times better than simply investing in a diverse media mix.

Today, everyone’s all about focus group-facilitated evidence. Organizations recognize they’ll get a 20 percent upswing in ad effectiveness if they get customer and prospect feedback first through moderated conversations. Is it any wonder Progressive tested campaign concepts through iResearch focus groups before launching them?

Yes, the “we must test” mantra is on the lips of founders and marketers. But what they still aren’t giving voice to is how online focus groups can achieve a range of business objectives. Instead, they’re looking the other way and ignoring four tenets of marketing that can be tempered by focus groups.

Tenet No. 1: What you don’t know will hurt you.

As Donald Rumsfeld once noted, “There are known knowns. … There are known unknowns. … But there are also unknown unknowns.” The last type killed New Coke in the 1980s. Unknown unknowns are exactly what you need to unearth through focus groups before making a costly, embarrassing faux pas like Coca-Cola’s.

When the biggest soft drink maker rolled out New Coke, it thought it had its bases covered. After all, in blind taste tests, New Coke’s taste repeatedly beat out the classic Coke flavor, as well as Pepsi-Cola’s signature beverage. Yet the marketing mavens at Coca-Cola never considered how an “unknown unknown” — consumers’ deep emotional attachment to classic Coke — could bring them to their knees.

The grassroots backlash was more severe than the crazy coifs of contemporaneous hair bands. Within weeks, New Coke was forever shelved and Coca-Cola learned a serious lesson: Always look for what you don’t know you don’t know — that’s your Achilles’ heel.

Tenet No. 2: Voices from the outside provide essential experiential feedback.

Paramount Pictures thought it had a diabolically clever promotion idea: Prior to the launch of “Mission: Impossible III,” it would place wired devices in the L.A. Times racks around the city. When the racks were opened, the “Mission: Impossible” theme would greet people’s ears.

Creative? Absolutely. Well-considered? Not on your life.

As soon as people saw the devices, they thought one thing: “Is this a bomb?” In one instance, a squad was called to the scene of a rack to defuse what turned out to be an innocuous marketing device.

Had Paramount not allowed itself to get caught up in the thrill of its original idea, it might have solicited outside opinions, like the third of marketing executives who say they’re going to spend up to 50 percent of their resources on experiential marketing testing in the coming years. And those opinions would surely have included cautionary suggestions about inserting wired devices into public newspaper vending machines.

Tenet No. 3: Quantitative data means nothing if people don’t want what you offer.

Most organizations regularly distribute surveys to answer quantitative questions beginning with “how much,” “how many,” and “how often.” Although this feedback is valuable, it has no context without the value-added insights from focus groups.

When iResearch worked with a chocolate maker, we discovered via focus groups something that negated everything in a survey the company was set to send out: Women were apprehensive about buying chocolate. Numbers meant little; what was important was encouraging potential buyers to think about chocolate in a less stressful light. The price point wasn’t a factor, but the feel-good aspect of the product was.

While it’s reasonable to extrapolate findings from a representative sample using a survey, don’t forget that surveys are quantity-driven. Yes, their results can be applicable to a broader population, but without context, the data is as two-dimensional and lacking as an Almond Joy missing its crucial tree nut.

Tenet No. 4: If you’re not listening, you’re not learning.

Consumers crave empathy. Sadly, most companies operate in bubbles, forgetting that others think and act differently than their internal players. Consequently, they risk ignoring their customers’ deepest needs, which can lead to everything from lost profits to business scandals.

Consider how Uber’s CEO leapt headfirst into boiling water when he argued hotly with one of his drivers. His lack of empathy was on display for the world and showed how little he presumably cared about others, choosing instead to blame his problems on those he employed.

Empathy comes from listening to people and hearing what they’re saying. Focus groups offer valuable perspectives on how users and possible users feel, prompting reflective opportunities and meaningful touchpoints. In other words, they enable those wonderful, all-too-human “aha!” moments.

Have you been limiting your focus group usage only to pre-testing? Think outside the norm, and become a master at applying online focus groupto a range of marketing strategies. In time, you’ll wonder how you ever got ahead without having the inside scoop on the people who matter most but can be so tough to figure out.

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