I’ve put in 15 years moderating groups in viewing facilities. As a planner I’ve eaten my weight in M&M’s sitting on the other side of the glass. So, having spent time on both sides of that distorting mirror I’m in a good position to discuss the profound difference between the two experiences.
‘Doing groups’ couldn’t be more different depending on which side you’re on. The experience can turn you into a completely different character, depending on where you’re sat - it's Jeckyll & Hyde. It’s the difference between emotionally feeling like a consumer and intellectually thinking like a marketer. The implications are huge.
The Moderator… You’re in a room full of respondents eager to answer your questions. You’re trying to engage and empathise whilst keeping the discussion on track. At the same time you’re conscious of keeping an open mind, so that unexpected insights have a chance of reaching the surface. And, let’s face it, you’re putting on a ‘show’ for the clients next door. Feeling drained but triumphant after a particularly emotional session, you go ‘back stage’ to see if there’s anything the client would like to probe - only to find they’ve all buggered off, leaving you in an empty room smelling of Chinese take-away.
Alternatively, you might invite the client for feedback, only to be asked, as some sort of witticism, to find out where the fat woman bought her polyester skirt. Hilarious.
The Client… can be a pain in the ass, but I now appreciate it isn’t easy when you’re not in the group itself. Scroll forwards a couple of years and here’s me on the ‘dark side’ selecting my take-away while chatting with the brand manager and checking my emails.
I might last an hour in one of those warm dark viewing rooms before my concentration waivers and I’m wondering how much the guy with the tattoos makes as a plumber. Or I might be the sort of client who spends the whole evening tapping their laptop, barely looking up to see who’s saying what. God knows what they’re writing about because it’s not possible to listen, type and analyse information at the same time. But, bless them, they probably have a boss who'll grill them in the morning and they need to show they were listening.
Objectify the consumer and you lose any chance of crawling into their skin and seeing the world through their eyes. Stay too close to the customer and you lose sight of the bigger 'strategic' picture.
Focus groups aren’t the answer. They're an artificial tool that sheds some light on a problem, but maybe bend and refract that light to suit an agenda. In some ways, they're actually part of the problem. They give the viewer behind the glass a false sense of ‘doing something’ when 'doing something' would be better served by getting out into the real world and actually listening to people.
Unless the consumer's experience touches us personally we may as well stay home. ©