Focus group research: Does it fan the creative spark or smother it?
Mention research to a creative, and you’ll likely get a predictably visceral response. To many, research is a fire blanket that smothers and extinguishes the creative spark. Creatives know that once their carefully crafted concept undergoes a few rounds at a focus group, it can come back a perplexing piece of compromised communication.
Clients, on the other hand, often see market research as a reassuring comfort blanket, an affirmation that their message is targeted and on strategy. For them, focus groups are invaluable tools to refine concepts via unique insights and customer feedback, supplying confidence that, come launch, their communication will be universally well received.
So where does the truth lie? How can you best mesh your research and your creative?
The creative criteria
Let’s start with the creative. What do you see when you look at your agency’s ad concepts? Do you like them? Are they strategically focused? Highly imaginative? Are they so memorable that they will glue themselves to the minds of customers who have more important issues to deal with than your product? Unless the answer to these questions is a resounding yes, the concepts should not see the light of day.
In most agencies I’ve worked in, creative criteria are employed to guide the concept development from its very conception through the rounds of internal and external reviews to the moment it is prepared to meet its final test: in market research. (This is the point where many creatives feel like they are marching their carefully crafted concept to the guillotine. “Off with its headline!”) So, with all the care and craft that goes into nurturing our very best imaginative thinking through creative criteria, it makes sense to apply criteria that continue to nurture and inform the ideas we produce. Here are five points that I believe will help:
1. Shape the research process.
Bring the creative team on board at the start of the process to gain creative input on the initial design of the research. Gear the focus group questions to generate the best insight based on the creative brief. It’s these tangible, differentiating factors that spark memorable creativity and avoid clichés.
2. Bring creatives to the session.
There’s no substitute for firsthand exposure to the insights that come out of these sessions. Sitting right behind the glass provides an invaluable opportunity to see the nuances of each reaction and comment. This experience will also give creatives more of a feel for the communication surrounding the concept than they would have otherwise had if they were simply supplied with a top-line document or a fuzzy video. Body language response can be extremely revealing.
3. Present concepts simply.
Consider a simple hand-drawn layout versus highly finished visuals. Creative tissues, such as the art director's hand-drawn sketch, give an opportunity to truly research an idea, as opposed to an overused photo library shot that “isn’t quite right.” Often, presenting a finished visual takes the group discussion on time-wasting tangents, such as reactions to the patient’s hair color or facial expression. And if your shot has been used before by some other agency, why would you expect any differentiating insights?
4. Eliminate focus group pros.
Work with your recruiters to weed out the “research circuit” attendees who use focus groups as a steady source of alternate income. In my experience, a characteristic of these participants is that they frequently punctuate their comments with advice on creative and art direction at “no extra charge.” A tight screening process and recruitment criteria would certainly help identify participants who are the best fits for your goals.
5. Encourage honest answers.
Whenever possible, craft the discussion in a way that encourages honest, genuine feedback from participants. Especially in a group setting, social desirability can prompt those present to give textbook answers instead of their personal opinions of a concept
Applying these five ideas can be an extremely useful exercise for the entire team. In fact, such an approach is like conducting two focus groups at once: the one in the research room with the facilitator and customer, and the one “behind the glass” where the agency and client sit. The dialogue between the facilitator and customer plays out to the client audience and creative team. The result is more accurate insight from three rounds of focus research, instead of, let’s say, 14.
There’s no debate that focus research is essential when it comes to message testing and forming a strategy. But in today’s intense, research-driven environment, we’re all endangered when gut instinct is overruled by a passing comment from someone who can kill your concept in a heartbeat. In these groups, a good moderator who can keep the session on track is worth their weight in gold. And it’s a great client who can disseminate the good from the bad and doesn’t suffer a knee-jerk reaction to the marketing hyperbole.
Squint with your ears, and listen to the insights of the customer in combination with your intuitions as marketers. Not surprisingly, the situation is only compounded when the advertising is global and testing is held in many different countries. The many frustrating, confused, unsophisticated results are there for all to see across multiple media. If you can spark the creative process from the get-go and produce the most imaginative, compelling ideas based on insight, the resulting communication will truly flourish. And I don’t need a focus group to confirm that.