Trust Your Consumer For Powerful Insights


by Jeff Hirsch

I have been thinking lately about how marketing research is like my golf swing. The more I take out, the more I simplify, the less I try to control it, the better it gets.

My first exposure to focus groups was as a young account executive for a New York ad agency.  I ran across several moderators who had found their way into the business after careers as schoolteachers.  But even most researchers from other backgrounds embraced a similar approach.

Research sessions were very controlled. Lots of set up to go through the rules. No talking at once, wait your turn. Stay on topic. We have our discussion guide and we’re sticking to it. Time is limited and we have to cover everything.  You can’t talk about that now because we’re going to talk about it later. Or not at all. Class, please behave!

This approach, still embraced by many, is simply counter-productive.  For example, an exercise where respondents are handed written concept statements and asked to “circle the words they like and cross out the ones they don’t” is inherently limiting. It is a way to organize, control and document reactions, but it makes little sense.

What if it’s not on the page to begin with?  More important, anytime stimulus is presented to respondents in a linear fashion, we are encouraging them to fall into a “marketing critic” role instead of uncovering their natural reactions as consumers.

This pitfall exists no matter how skilled the moderator, how well the guide is crafted or how fabulous the stimulus might be. Respondents can be instructed at length to express feelings, not judgments, to focus on the big picture and not the minutia, but by the time the second or third concept comes up for discussion, most have turned into judge and jury, confidently predicting that “people will (or won’t) like this one.”

Structure and discipline is as important to the golf game as it is to qualitative research, but overthinking and trying to control your swing will ruin your game. All athletes know that if you’re not relaxed or if your mind is cluttered with too many thoughts, disaster looms.

Discipline and control can be very different things. The idea is to focus on a few fundamentals like stance and grip, trust your swing and let it happen. “Grip it and rip it” as PGA and British Open winner John Daley used to say.

This suggests an entirely different way to elicit reactions for the purpose of building strategic insights.

Instead of presenting concepts and asking the usual questions, trust your respondents and let them go.  Consider a workshop approach where a group of eight might be split into “teams” of four. Give them a set of ten or more bare bones “building block” concepts.  Simple, emotionally based ideas.  Then charge them to go off on their own to select, as a team, the one or two most motivating concepts and bring them to life. Ask them to name products, design packages, write commercials, choose a spokesperson that best personifies the brand, or any other number of things.

A lot of good things happen with this approach, the same way that the best golf shots happen when you just step up to the tee, relax and swing away. Most important, when respondents are deeply engaged with this challenge, which they always relish, they become passionate participants with a stake in the process, not aloof critics.

As they talk to each other and think out loud, first as they feel their way through the concepts and then bring their favorites to life, we are able to observe the consumer thought process naturally, up close and personal. There is absolutely no bias and nothing is forced.  Moderators cannot control or influence these spontaneous discussions and the order in which they are presented is not a factor.

The ultimate output of this type of exercise is always far more prolific and insightful as compared with the “present and react” method.  More importantly, the experience of this psychological and creative journey is invaluable.

Steve Jobs always said that the “consumers don’t know what they want.” That’s not true at all. Consumers do know what they want when they see it.  Our job in forward-looking research is to provide the tools and the vocabulary to help them articulate their feelings. Give them enough “what ifs” to work with, putting a wide range of “stakes in the ground” to start them down this path.  They’ll tell you precisely what motivates them in detailed, emotional terms.

There is great power in letting go. It’s true in life, in sports, and especially in qualitative research. You just can’t get this kind of depth and insight with other research techniques, especially quantitative methodologies, as good as many of them are these days.

So trust your consumers, set the stage and let it happen!

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