Focus Groups Learn 'Hows and Whys' (On Consumers)

by Craig Douglass and Ernie and Zoe Oakleaf  on Monday, Aug. 6, 2012 12:00 am  

Since we're in the business of asking questions, here's one for you: What's more important to a smart marketer, knowing what consumers do or understanding why they do it?

It's not a trick question. In fact, the question answers itself. Smart marketers not only know what actions consumers take, and can measure those actions statistically, they also strive to find out why consumers make the choices they do. It's the difference between quantitative information and qualitative emotions. (Quantitative meaning reducing the question to a quantity, a number. And qualitative means a quality or characteristic, some kind of value.) Focus group research works to discover the "why" of consumer activity. Here are some examples and tips on how to use focus groups in your business.

A focus group helps clients find out how consumers approach a buying or preference decision, and why they make the decisions they do. It's the "how and why" of a particular target audience's beliefs, perceptions, attitudes and opinions about an idea, brand, product, service, advertisement, concept, package or practice. Focus groups are also used in politics to help shape messaging and issues and candidate presentation. Probing questions are posed by a focus group moderator in a group setting where participants discuss among themselves the values associated with the topic. Group discussion produces actionable data less accessible without the interaction of a dynamic group session.

Interview strategies vary based on the client's objectives. They include exploring topics, investigating reasons, identifying emotions, understanding motivators, generating ideas, refining communications and developing strategic positioning. The focus can include concepts, ideas, proposals, product, price, package, promotion, distribution, public policy and political research, and customer service programs, as well as mock juries and trial consulting.

Focus groups should be used when relatively little is known about a given topic, product or service. This research discipline can also be employed when multiple topics need to be explored (which is hard to do in telephone surveys). Groups also are an effective way to get potential consumers' unvarnished reactions and comments, and to freely explore a number of ideas in a roundtable-like discussion, thus providing direction on marketing communications next steps.

But it is the "why" of the process that yields the most actionable results. To that end, a technique called laddering is employed. With laddering, the focus group moderator can uncover the sequential levels of features, benefits and emotions.

Here is an example of a question sequence designed to uncover the emotional motivators of a smartphone, moving from features to benefits to emotional motivation.

Moderator: "What do you like best about your phone?"

Respondent: "Getting sports scores." (Feature)

Moderator: "What's important about that?"

Respondent: "I know what's happening right away." (Functional benefit)

Moderator: "What does that do for you?"

Respondent: "I can tell my friends as soon as I know." (Higher benefit)

Moderator: "What does telling your friends right away do for you?"

Respondent: "I'm the go-to guy for sports. My friends expect me to know, and I do." (Emotional benefit)

The bottom line is the smartphone user feels better about himself (and his purchasing decision) because he is in the know.

Through this focus group exchange, which would take place among a group of eight to 12 participants, the client can readily see how to shape the marketing program to appeal to a smartphone user's need for information. It is not necessarily what the user knows from using the phone, but it's how it makes him or her feel. It's an emotional benefit that comes directly from one of the phone's features. And that's what savvy marketers would key on to develop their marketing communications message and promotion program.

The laddering approach can be used for a wide array of different products and services, specifically designed to inform a business not only about what consumers like, but how it makes them feel - or how they want to feel. And that's how you sell!

(Craig Douglass is an advertising agency owner and partner with Zoe and Ernie Oakleaf in InFocus LLC, a Little Rock-based focus group research company.)



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