What You Can Learn from Focus Groups
When you hear a fellow direct marketer talk about the usefulness of focus groups, do you dismiss the concept as fine for general advertising, but a waste of money for direct marketers? Do you feel you get all the information you need from the results of your direct mail tests?
If you answered yes to either of these questions, you might be missing out on the powerful insight that focus groups can lend your creative strategiesand lagging behind on what your customers and prospects really think of your product.
But you don't have to take my word for it. See if this one-on-one with Ellen de Lathouder, vice president, creative services at Meredith Publishing Group, can convince you that focus groups are not just for the agencies on Madison Avenue.
Q: Why are focus groups important to direct marketers?
A: I can't say enough about returning to customers to hear what they have to say. As direct marketers, we're in the "consumer behavior business."
My metaphor for this relationship between marketers and customers is that of two friends. When you have a friend, you have empathy and can relate to their needs accordinglyand relevantly.
I also find the customer's emotional connection to the product to be the reason for success in direct mail. Tapping into this emotion is often responsible for doubling gross response to a direct mail campaign.
Q: How do you apply what you learn in focus groups to your direct mail campaigns?
A: We can get stuck brainstorming new ideas for our direct mail packages, but when we go back to the customer, we often get an "aha."
For example, a few years ago we got stuck with Golf for Women magazine. We were trying to beat the control, which had been conceived based on research from a focus group. We learned that women golfers got the most excited about the sport when they beat men golfersbecause men were perceived to be the experts. So we developed a package that showed a woman making the winning shot, with a man kneeling behind her and grabbing his hat in defeat. We had achieved a 35% net breakthrough with this particular mailing.
But we couldn't beat it. So we went back to the consumer. This time we found out that women give up faster on golf than men, but that the women who stick with it are those that are happy if they get just one good hit. We also found out that the male partners of women golfers get even more excited if the women make a good shot than the women themselves do. We incorporated this information into a new mailing, and got another 35% lift.
This [example] illustrates that success comes from building upon what you already know in direct mail. We're getting to where we call certain direct mail packages "focus group packages."
Q: How do focus groups help you strategize for mature products?
A: We tend to get comfortable with Better Homes & Gardens, because it's been around for so long. But if we agree that promotion is about the consumer and not the product, how can we write about the consumer if we don't know him or her?
You need to have respect for the power of the consumer... need to stay close to the consumer and what she wants to read.
We also get language from focus groups [for use in our direct mail copy]. From a focus group for Better Homes & Gardens, for example, we pulled one quote about how a customer's home was a reflection of herself.
Q: What kind of focus groups do you run?
A: We conduct two types of focus groups at Meredith: editorial and creative.
Before, creative would ride along on the heels of editorial focus groups; then we began developing our own question guides, because finding out how readers liked the March issue of a magazine did not help us with our promotions for the publication.
The structure of the creative-driven focus group depends on how the direct mail package is being developed and whether we need some information that has not been found through an editorial focus group.
It's important for the marketing and creative departments to be a team; [marketing] knows what creative needs and gives us the resources.
Q: Do you go into the focus group with an idea of what you will learn?
A: More often than not, I have an idea of what I'll hear, but not how it will be expressed. You get richer language, humor and passion from the focus groups.
Q: Do Meredith staffers get to attend the focus groups?
A: What has changed over the years is [the ability] to videoconference the focus groups, so no one has to travel. You benefit from the convenience of having people at work who can sit in on the session that might not otherwise.
We also videotape the sessions, so the whole creative staff can see the tapes, even if they're not working on that package; if they ever do work for that magazine [discussed by the focus group] in the future, then they know the customer or can remember who he or she is.
Q: Who else benefits from the information gathered at the focus group?
A: After a focus group, I hold a meeting where the creative staff can view the session tapes. I like to make these focus group rehashes open to everyone: group directors and direct mail managers might attend the focus group, but then we expand to include circulation directors, creative, editorial and any others who want to attend.
This way, the customer is no longer a mystery to anyone.
I like to think that when we get everyone in the room, it's the customer who unites usthat's the formula for success, and we didn't create this idea at Meredith.
Q: Can you test creative approaches in a focus group?
A: You have to keep in mind that the focus groups are qualitative research, and direct mail is quantitative research.
If you put direct mail in that focus group session, say two outer [envelopes], then you're going to get a selection. But you still have to validate that selection with a test, or you're not getting anything out of it.
A focus group brings a special dynamic, where direct mail is intimate and one-on-one with the person. You can't really test direct mail in a group, because the first person who offers her opinion sways the rest of the group.
You can put the creative out there for general discussion, but you can't base mail tests on it.
This brings up an important point: With focus groups, you need to know what information to take and what to leave. You have to be psychological, and know what [participants] mean, when they say something else.
Q: What kinds of moderators do you hire?
A: We have a research director who finds partner companies or independent moderators. For focus groups, we either use an independent or a firm; we don't reuse any of the same people or keep anyone on retainer.
I liken a focus group leader to being a teacher with 10 to 15 people to whom you have to get an idea across as well as stimulate reaction. You also have to get to every person, and then manage each personality so no one dominates with his or her opinion.
Q: How do you select a good moderator?
A: Good moderators are those who work with you on the script, ask good questions, tap into what you want to find and then articulate that message to the consumer.
You should ask for the moderator's track record and client list or references, especially for magazine research.
For the best results, you have to give the facilitator clear directions about what information you want to get backand how you want it delivered or conveyed.
Q: What kind of feedback should you expect from the moderator?
A: You want an intelligent report with analytical thinking from the facilitator. You can agree or disagree with the feedback, but it's all food for thought.
What you don't want is editing by committee; you can get input from the other members of the creative staff later, but the facilitator should draw up his or her report independently.
Q: Why do you feel focus groups are important to the success of your direct mail programs?
A: We're the lifeline to the writers and designers we hire, and the consumer is the key to what they produce for us.
Some of the things we try to answer with a focus group are, "What's the promise of this product to the consumer, and how do we convey it?"
What's interesting is we have found that some of the same emotional strategies apply to all of Meredith's products.
Obviously, you can be successful without focus groups, but you have so much more information to go with when you've talked to the consumer, and you definitely have more confidence about the messages you put out there.