The Assorted Pleasures of Focus Groups and M&Ms
I really enjoy watching focus groups. Nothing beats being a voyeur behind a two-way mirror, munching on M&Ms, and getting paid for the privilege. And since you’re sitting in a dark room, no one really notices if you nod off for a few minutes.
Aside from my personal enjoyment, there also are many benefits for a nonprofit organization in using focus groups to develop creative strategies, so long as you use the process and the information correctly.
For larger nonprofits that send out high volumes of mail, using focus groups can greatly aid in creating new packages. The cost of such research easily is offset by the high potential revenue. Focus groups also are helpful to organizations that address fast-moving issues. Frequently, emerging political issues and natural or man-made catastrophes don’t allow a lot of time to test messages and packaging. Focus groups help fill that void.
The key skill you must have in working with focus groups is being able to determine what information’s useful and what’s useless. Much of what focus-group participants say is contrary to the way they actually act. They often “do as they do” instead of “do as they say.”
Here’s an example: Two years ago, I was watching a focus group being conducted for one of my clients. It was composed of 10 people, none of whom knew the common factor they all shared: They were members of my client organization. Yet when asked if they were members of that organization, only six of the 10 admitted the fact.
In other words, 40 percent of the participants didn’t provide accurate answers. Did they lie? Did they not want others knowing they were members? Did they think it was no one’s business? Or did they just forget?
The answers to those questions really aren’t relevant. The most important thing we can derive from the situation is that people don’t always act as they say. Another example is the increasing inaccuracy of exit polls during recent elections. Many participants simply are presenting false answers to the pollsters.
This is why focus groups should be used as a complement to instead of a replacement for standard testing techniques. The ultimate test of a direct-marketing campaign still is the tried-and-true mail strategy, which bases its results on a donor’s true actions.
If you strictly relied on focus groups to determine your strategy, you would probably suspend all of your direct-mail efforts based on the responses you receive. Even the most generous direct-mail donors will say they hate to receive direct mail. They always will say the letters are too long, even though many actually are more likely to respond to long letters.
So how do you tell the useful tidbits from the useless ones? Success requires a trained ear. It’s often the little comments you hear most frequently that are most helpful. A number of participants might find one set of copy patronizing. Or they might get stuck on a particular phrase they don’t like. A particular teaser on the outer envelope might prove to be a turnoff. The graphics on an insert might make the copy difficult to read. One piece of copy might confuse them, while the other is clearer concerning the issue. Maybe one part of your argument is stronger than another.
Just a couple useful nuggets of information can go a long way toward creating a stronger direct-mail package and justifying the expense of a focus group.
The use of focus groups is also not right for every organization. If your organization is small, focus groups probably are not cost-effective for you. Hiring a professional to coordinate a series of focus groups is not a cheap affair.
Oh, and let me issue one last, important warning: Attending too many focus groups can have a negative effect on your waistline.
Jim Hussey is president of Adams Hussey & Associates. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.