The Black Lake staff often interacts face-to-face with our clients, but it’s not every day that we get to talk to their clients. This week, we got a chance to sit down with several long-standing clients of one of our local clients and pick their brains about the company’s brand. Our goal was to find out how they felt about the firm and why, and what they thought about the preliminary branding and messaging work we had done.
The results of the focus group were positive and productive, and they also got me thinking about best practices for conducting focus groups in general. How do you weed out unhelpful comments and get the most out of insightful ones? How do you construct questions and activities to maximize the productivity of the meeting? Upon further reflection, I devised the following recommendations:
1. Phrase questions and statements positively.
In our focus group, we gave the clients slips of paper with a variety of different phrases that could describe their feelings about the company. We asked them to sort the statements into three piles: Agree, Disagree, and Neutral. We designed this activity to give us insight into their perceptions of the brand, and to help us find out if they were aligned with our perceptions. To do so, we had to include statements that aligned with our ideas, neutral statements, and statements that portrayed the opposite perspective.
However, we didn’t want to make it obvious which statements we hoped the clients would disagree with. That would probably only make them biased in favor of agreeing with us. For example, if you hoped that people would agree with the statement, “The company genuinely cares about my family’s best interests,” it would be silly to pair it with this statement: “The company doesn’t care at all about my family.” Who would want to agree with that? It’s bitter and negative, and after all, these are satisfied customers you’re talking to. Instead, craft a positive statement that someone would be comfortable agreeing with, and that would tell you something about the clients’ thoughts and feelings. In this case, the statement “They are one of several professionals I use to get the job done” would imply that the client doesn’t place a lot of importance on an intimate, familial connection with the company, but rather values their utility.
2. Include a wide range of clients.
Most companies have a wide range of different types of clients. Clients may be men or women, old or young, new or long-standing, employers or employees, etc. Different life experiences lead to different perspectives, and therefore different perceptions of a business. If you don’t want your results to be skewed by selection bias, make sure you take this diversity into account when you form your focus group.
Be aware of generational differences. Some generations are more familiar with digital communications, while others will tend to prefer print materials. Think about what demographic segment the company most wants to target in the future, and be sure to include current clients who fit that description. But don’t neglect to include people further from the center of the target, too!
3. Their first reaction is their honest reaction.
Showing clients messaging or visual treatments is like telling them a joke—if you have to explain it, it didn’t work. Encourage clients to share their immediate, knee-jerk reactions to the material you’re showing them. If it strikes a chord with them right off the bat, to mix my metaphors, it probably has something going for it. If it throws them off before they have a chance to think about it, that might be a sign that you need to head back to the drawing board.
4. Distinguish between execution and concept.
Though a person’s first reaction is their most honest reaction, you should still dig deeper. In our focus group, we found that there were some key differences between their perceptions of the surface characteristics of the verbal and visual messaging (specific words, phrases, colors, fonts, and design elements) and the concept we were actually trying to get across through them. Identifying this disconnect is good, because it will help you pick the right vocabulary and visuals to communicate the brand narrative accurately. Connotations are perceived differently by different people, and examining clients’ reactions can show you how to speak their language.
While verbal and visual precision are necessary, and you shouldn’t disregard the clients’ feedback in this area, focus more on the concept and narrative you’re trying to incarnate. If the clients buy into that, then you’ll know you’re on the right track. Once you have the concept right, it will be much easier to nail the execution.
5. Remove outliers.
Finally, be alert for outliers, responses that are idiosyncratic and do not represent the opinions of a significant portion of the client base. These can pop up when clients are giving you their gut reactions, but they may also appear when you dive deeper. Sometimes, clients get hung up on picky little details—a color they don’t like, a word that bugs them, something that reminds them of a negative interaction they had with another company, etc.—and won’t be able to get past it to give more constructive feedback. Respect these clients and their ideas, but don’t feel beholden to them, as if you need to change the whole brand because one client hates the color red. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll be able to figure out which comments are relevant and which should be set aside.
Focus groups are not an exact science, but if you follow these tips, they can be valuable, productive additions to your creative process.