Steal Smart: The Art of Working with Focus Groups
One way to make eyes glaze over in a senior management meeting is to refer to the "soul of the consumer." I used that phrase once in a strategic planning meeting to explain why we shouldn't abandon consistent use of focus groups. My former boss teased me about my "wooga, wooga" talk. Most publishing executives operate in a more quantitative world, I know. And that's a good thing.
But it's our job here at Meredith Creative Services to create compelling copy and design that promise fulfillment to our prospect's most personal desires, needs and motivations. In another sense, we promise success. Success for the woman designing a beautiful home with the very look she wants; completing that exquisite quilt; creating a garden retreat; making a family-pleasing meal; and so on. They all have the potential of making her feel really good about herself, which gets us to the soul of who our prospect is and what motivates her.
She wants to feel creative. From us, she gets permission to trust her impulses with lots of visuals that offer possibilities. We're not only selling success, we're selling confidence and transformation. To be successful (lift response), it's important we probe for these internal buttons. We often refer to them as magnets, because if we're pushing the right buttons, we'll be able to attract her attention.
The best way to uncover these magnets is with focus groups. I can't say enough about their ability to unlock secrets of the soul. Early in my career I worked for another publishing house. Never in my tenure there did I attend a focus group. So, when I came to Meredith I couldn't believe I had the opportunity to actually interview prospects. Talk about transformation!
Before, I would have to make my own assumptions as to why anyone might desire a quilting book. Like a master painter, perhaps quilters want to take all the time in the world to hand-stitch beautiful heirlooms. Wrong! It didn't take more than a few group sessions to discover that these quilters want to make their quilts quickly, more efficiently, with tools like rotary cutters. Once we discovered this consistent desire, our art director flew into action, placing a rotary cutter across the main spread of the brochure. This was the launch package for American Patchwork and Quilting, and it was a compelling visual.
We also noted that, like any creative endeavor, quilting provides a sense of accomplishment that comes with creating something beautiful. We knew that, but one quilter gave us the copy line that remains in our direct mail package more than a decade after the launch: "Nothing equals the feeling you get when you create a beautiful quilt." It's a magnet to all those pros-pects who say, "That's like me. That's the way I feel."
In Her Own Words
Focus groups tell us how to have a conversation with our prospects, how to build empathy into the voice of the copy. We "steal" words from the participants to sell the universe at large the value of the product. (That's the personal value, separate from the offer, which is its own story.)
Listen to how they soulfully define personal fulfillment; does it have universal application? Here are some comments that came from a focus group for Country Home magazine:
* "When I'm at home, it's like being on vacation."
* "I want people to come into my home and feel like they never want to leave."
* "I want rooms that say, 'This is me'."
A copywriter with good radar for these magnets will snap them up and turn them into a promise that says this is the product that will make you fulfilled, successful and confident:
With Country Home you can create rooms that define who you are. Rooms that say, 'This is me.'
This line didn't come from a copywriter writing in the vacuum of a cubicle. It came from taking time to listen to the prospect.
I'm convinced that, here at Meredith, our success would be diminished were it not for focus groups. I'm also convinced that they can make the difference between a 4 percent response and a 6 percent response.
Keep in mind, this article is limited to using focus groups to develop direct mail pieces, not to track editorial feedback or develop new products. That said, our most frequent use of focus groups occurs when a long-standing control seems impossible to beat. In fact, most of our creative breakthroughs come from "focus group" packages. It just makes sense to go back to the prospect/customer to get new insights, new language or new creative positioning.
Some of the strongest concepts I have seen come out of focus groups were for MORE magazine and Golf for Women (back when Meredith owned it). The MORE groups were challenged to talk about the upside of being over 40. Every time a woman talked about having the confidence to do something like change her career or jump out of a plane, she'd get a chorus of "Go, girl!" That led to our successful, peer-affirming "girlfriend" package, which features the "Go girl" tagline on the outer envelope.
Participants in a Golf for Women focus group revealed the recurring story of wanting to trump the men in a game. That was their standard of success, and it led to a package with a visual of a male partner falling to his knees with amazement as his female partner sinks a put.
Probing for Ideas
It's not wise to use focus groups to vote. It doesn't matter how many think this or that. Rather use them to probe feelings and attitudes: What's the upside of being a woman over 40? The downside? How important is your home? What is the biggest compliment anyone could ever pay you regarding your home? When you're decorating/quilting/ gardening/woodworking, how do you feel? When you're done, how do you feel? What would make you want to decorate/renovate more? Who's your role model? Why? What's different about you/your home/your goals from what they were five years ago? In short, make the focus groups about the prospect, not the product.
Probing also leads to interaction among the participants, so let them interact. When they're headed in a good direction, the more language, the more consensus, the more passion, the more anecdotes, the betterjust as long as the tape will be decipherable.
For me, the smaller the group, the better. It takes three people to interact. If they're the right people, you have a great session. I know that flies against standard procedure, but a good interviewer, if he knows what he wants, knows how to get it. And it's not always questions. Probing suggests inquiries such as, "Tell me more about that."
Common focus group wisdom suggests that everyone should have equal say. I disagree. If someone is particularly articulate or passionate, let her talk. On the other hand, if there's that person who's not speaking up, perhaps she doesn't have anything to say. Leave her alone.
Focus groups tell us how to have a conversation with our prospect, how to build empathy into the voice of our letters and brochures.
We use the prospect's own words to sell her the product. Ask her how to sell her something. She'll tell you. How easy is that? Remember, it's not about why you need to sell. It's why she needs to buy. Focus groups are key to discovering those needs.