Sunday, August 29, 2004

The Hidden Dangers of Focus Groups

People don't realize the myriad dangers which can occur while observing focus groups.  The room behind the two-way mirror is very dark.  You could fall asleep, hit your head on a bowl of M&M's, pretzels, or trail mix and put an eye out. 

Last week I was part of a group of people observing focus groups for three long days.  I left my house around 6:30 in the morning.  And I finally got home around midnight.

The dangerous part isn't sleeping while you drive. It's after you get home so late. You crash on the bed in your clothes, wake up and have to cut your feet out of your shoes. There's also the phlegm that drips out of the corner of your mouth and sticks your cheeks to the pillow. Then rips your face off when you roll over.

Basically, there are two batches of observers for the groups. The client, who has products or services they want to test qualitatively.  And the marketing services company doing the research for them. Sometimes the ad agency comes along. Usually for the free food and the well-stocked, often libation-loaded, refrigerator.

I was part of the creative team working for a marketing services company. While everybody else is thinking strategically and operationally, we have to put their jargon into something that makes sense for real people. In short sentences. With words that aren't too big.

Then we simplify it.

The team writes and draws the original product or service concepts based on ideas developed in an earlier ideation session. "Remember there are no bad ideas." [Until this meeting is over.]

The ideation happens about a month before the groups convene, so the words and pictures can be fine-tuned before they are shown to the respondents. "Do you really think anybody's been longing for the convenience of turkey, mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans and gravy that you can squeeze out of a tube?"

The number of concepts varies. We developed more than forty this time. Before it was over we probably wrote and drew over seventy. And the ones pictured aren't the illustrations we used, if you're trying to figure out just what you're looking at. 

During the focus groups we continue to write or re-write and draw additional concepts, depending on what the respondents/clients/marketing services people are saying.  Things like "Kill it!"  Or, "I don't know who we're kidding, we can't make that product for another ten years."

We come up with clever names too, because sometimes that can make or break an idea. Like Woolly Bullys. Can you guess what that was for? Don't bother, if I told you, I'd have to kill myself.

After each focus group we de-brief and start making changes. Or adding new concepts. We have between one and three hours to get everything ready for the next group. Words, pictures, and production. Two hours is about average. No napping on our watch. Although when the lights are out. . .

During this drill, I find myself writing faster than I think. Which is probably a good thing. The illustrator draws even faster -- the ones pictured took him about twenty minutes each, start to finish.  That's old fashioned drawing. Pen to paper. In case you're wondering, twenty minutes is world class speed. It's during this intense writing, re-writing and drawing that paper cuts and inkstains become our constant companions. I'm telling you, danger is everywhere.

A third person -- actually the busiest one -- handles all the production, waiting for us to make changes so he can print out the words, put them with the pictures, then glue them to boards to show to the groups. Finally he prints 8-10 fifteen page decks of all the concepts. 

He also goes into the focus group room later on to whisper to the moderator that the headline on the concept he's presenting right now actually belongs to the copy on a completely different board.  

You think bringing in a message like that isn't dangerous work?

Or he might be asked to bring in questions from the people in the back room. "Ask them whether they would feed this to their children if we held a gun to their heads."

The decks are small versions of the concepts. They are handed out to all the observers in order of presentation so they can follow along.  Each focus group is different.  The concepts the respondents are shown vary. The number of concepts changes. So does the order they're presented in.

It gets pretty busy, so you have to eat and go to the bathroom while you're doing other things. I eat during the groups. And go to the bathroom when I'm checking voicemail. No, I do not make calls in the bathroom. In fact, I hang up on anybody who does it to me.  Okay, anybody I can hear who does it to me.

Eating in the dark often means putting potatos on your plate when you thought you were getting tortellini. Or eating something sweet you thought was salty. Or drinking a can of beer you thought was A & W. 

Of course, nothing takes place without the respondents.  White, black, hispanic [I've hardly seen any Asians or men BTW], married, not married, working, not working, with kids, without kids, pregnant, menopausal, you name it.

There were the usual interesting moments.  A couple of vegetarians were somehow recruited for these recent focus groups, when the products being evaluated were so NOT vegetarian. But the ladies were allowed to stay.

If they had started shouting anti-meat slogans or spraying paint on people's clothes, someone from the staff at the facility would have been chosen to come into the room and tell the offender that she had a phone call. Then she'd be given a check and sent on her way. 

You know respondents get paid, right? 

One very attractive woman, wearing a power suit, opened her mouth and talked like John Gotti's daughter. That was topped only by her smile, which was missing several front teeth.

But, an even stranger phenomenon took place.  As the first group began to convene and take their seats, I was in the back of our room, feeling my way through the breakfast buffet.  I heard a man's voice and wondered why there was another man besides the moderator in this group. When I sat down I saw it wasn't a man;  it was a woman with a voice like a man's. 

And her name was "Pat."

When it was time for the next group, I heard another man's voice. And I noticed it was another woman. She was sitting in the same seat as the first woman with a man's voice. Keep in mind there are nine seats to choose from. 

And her name was also "Pat."

During one of the later groups, a woman sat down where the other two had been sitting. She didn't have a man's voice.

But her name was "Pat."

Finally, we lost one of the clients after the first day. She was hospitalized.  I am not kidding.

Then we lost one of the marketing services guys -- the one in charge, in fact.  He had to leave suddenly for a hospital emergency, too.  A family member. 

Then the client got news that something terrible had happened at one of their plants.

And you thought focus groups were for sissies.



dbaumgartner said...

Geez, what a process to go through to see if people really like Bully on a cracker or carbonated Bully.  LOL!!!!!

I would think, sitting in the dark observing these people would be so mind numbing one could easily slip into a coma.

Thanks for the morning smile.

judithheartsong said...

oh, you are so delightful. Who knew you had such a dangerous job????

lwhitewave said...

I finished "Hearing" this on aolbyphone...and thought "You have one hell of a job, lady.  Not one I would ever want, but certainly one hell of a job!"

pkbeachbum said...

Been to my share of focus groups. You nailed the experience. The last one I was on dealt with an Rx constipation drug. The closest we came to danger, however, was keeping the laughter down so the doctors on the other side of the 2-way mirror wouldn't be distracted. Better luck on the next one.