The biscuits are stale.


The biscuits are stale.

No one has said anything for three minutes (but it feels like 30). You’ve just been asked exactly how the lighter cheese spread in front of you makes you feel when you eat it on top of a sample sized piece of bagel? Empowered? Mindful? Confused? Welcome to the focus group. Commonplace amongst FMCG industries and new product launches for decades now and epitomised by the classic strip lit room, two-way mirrors and convoluted questions.

This kind of sanitised, alien environment is unlikely to coax the most truthful responses from participants, not least because they are sat in a room with complete strangers.

This isn’t the best environment to unearth insights.

When put under the spotlight, it is quite easy for us to overlook the minutia of the everyday decisions we make and opinions we have in favour of a whitewashed, conveniently flattering version of ourselves. If the question was: ‘do you care about the environment?’ in all likelihood, most would say yes, but in reality, this moral standing point may be rarely put to practice. Have you ever been tempted to gingerly fish a crumpled, tea-soaked milk carton out of the bin realising you should probably have recycled it? Unlikely. This is called the claimed, versus the actual – what we say we do, think or feel, versus what we actually do. More likely, people do not even realise their own behaviour. They believe or want to believe they act a certain way, but in reality, don’t.  As NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it ‘the conscious brain thinks it is the Oval office, but it is actually the Press Office’.

The best kind of insight therefore comes from a place where people are comfortable speaking truthfully – however unflattering that might be – to eliminate the contradiction of claimed versus actual. The best nuggets of insight that have been unearthed have come from universal truths that not many people would want to own up to.

“The conscious brain thinks it is the Oval office, but it is actually the Press Office.”

Inject some insight

Enter the genius of Spotify’s 2016 campaign. Instead of sitting customers down in a room and grilling them about their favourite music, they plucked the juiciest insights from their plethora of acquired data to fuel their billboard-led campaign about the nation’s listening habits. “Dear 3,749 people who streamed ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ the day of the Brexit vote, hang in there”. The campaign took those private thoughts and indulgences and showed us how we’re actually all quite similar. The insights pulled from Spotify’s data were so strong, they actually led the campaign. It made people smile and proved we are far more alike than we’d like to think.

In the phenomenon of ‘claimed’ versus ‘actual’, data can tell us what people are really doing (or, more revealingly what they’re telling porkies about). It can back up all the inklings we may have about what people enjoy or unearth trends and popular opinions hiding in plain view, on a large scale. More recently, Cambridge Analytica and its farming of Facebook data showed us they may well have rendered questionnaires obsolete.

 The focus group may have life in it yet, but not as we know it.

We increasingly rely on data to reaffirm theories on large scale behaviours, but we still need the human responses that focus groups were designed to extract. If the traditional focus group is redundant, how else can we achieve this level of human understanding? Here are four alternative approaches to unearthing good insights:

  1. Realtime behaviour monitoring.

Reebok needed a new proposition behind their sports bra offering in a crowded, confusing market and approached Intermarketing with the challenge. Instead of conducting a focus group based entirely on claimed behaviour, we took an ethnographic approach. We tasked respondents to record their shopping experience as they engaged in the real process of buying sports bras normally. We asked for their emotional responses at various points of the purchase journey, beginning at their first point of research (word of mouth, desktop search, window shopping) all the way through to trying out the product again at home. Creating a natural environment for shoppers (even if that means in groups) then asking for a thorough record of their thought process increases the chances of finding truthful, useful and even unexpected insights. We brought them together in a group environment to discuss their real experiences, generating debate and discussion, encouraging truth over assumption. Certain apps have also been developed to replicate this process of shopper behaviour tracking where a physical focus group isn’t possible.

  1. Search engine use.

The site is a devilishly simple tool that directly taps into data pulled from Google search terms. We might not think about it much, but we tell Google all kinds of truths; embarrassing, sad, stupid, fun, unusual. These are a goldmine for marketers and brands looking for quick, uncensored consumer sentiment.

  1. Native platforms

The Corner agency was tasked with initial research for a new Oasis drinks campaign but came up short in their focus group. Their bored, teenage target audience mumbled monosyllabic answers and then quickly scarpered off with £50 for their trouble. The Corner quickly understood that in order to access the unbridled thoughts of this group they needed to use a platform native to these social Gen Z’s. Their WhatsApp-led focus group soon unfolded into an inside-joke filled revelation and they built their award-winning campaign around the insights gained. Of course, this approach doesn’t mean that every group will respond well to digital channels. The lesson is that different demographics should be reached in tailored ways, even if that means catching them over a pint of bitter rather than exchanging memes.  Which brings us onto…

  1. Get away from your desk!

With jam-packed working days and technology in place to make us more productive (read, busier) it’s incredibly easy to turn into a desk potato. What’s more, with tools like Google at our disposal, it’s easy to think that we have all the information we ever need at our fingertips. But there is a big wide world out there, and there is much to learn. In a socially fractured time, breaking out of our own echo chambers has never been more important. With desktop research making up 94% of most planners’ research (according to an Ogilvy piece in Campaign magazine), there is an untapped opportunity to get out into the wider world and talk to people from different demographics and points of view. We might just learn something new.

Read widely, then go with your gut.

As marketers, we have plenty of tools designed to uncover insight at our disposal, but we also need something big budgets can’t buy; intuition. We need people who will keenly observe, process that information and draw out some meaning. We need people who don’t look at the face value but who constantly ask, what does this mean? That’s where we revisit the face-to-face conversation, the emotional exchange that allows the nuance to come through. After all – for the time being at least – data can’t record the eye rolls and anecdotal truths that define our communications as humans. We have to fill those gaps ourselves.

Eureka moments of insight only happen to those who are prepared for them. Have chats with strangers in pubs, or better still, observe them. Listen to podcasts when you do the washing up, read the newspapers you disagree with. Set up Google alerts, sign up to newsletters if you don’t have the luxury of time to read. You are priming your brain to recognise when a gut feeling actually has something behind it. Stay curious and resist the stale format.


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