How to Make Focus Groups Really Predict Market Winners
Conventional focus groups are notoriously ineffective at predicting winners of real life direct mail tests. But I led a group of graduate level marketing research students in a study to see if we could increase the effectiveness of focus groups in mimicking market results.
The first step was to simulate the reality of the mailbox experience. One of our hypotheses was that most mail is sorted figuratively, if not literally, over the trash can. So rather than showing the groups one or two pieces of creative nicely displayed on boards, we put a realistic pile of a day’s mail in front of each member.
Along with the packages we wanted to study (including proven controls as well as test packages),we included things like grocery store fliers, coupon books, credit card statements, bills, and personal letters and cards. The group was asked to quickly sort their piles into three categories:
a) things they felt they had to deal with immediately
b) things they could deal with later if they had time
c) things they felt they had permission to ignore entirely.
I call this the “Urgency Index.”Experienced copywriters know that the closer your piece is to the top of the first category, the better your chances for a sale. The results of this particular study supported that maxim: Most proven controls were sorted into the first category, and most losing test packages fell lower on the index.
When market realities, competition for attention, and the time constraints all consumers face were introduced into the process, the usual behavior found in focus groups changed. Instead of gushing over expensive, photo-rich packages and poetic but vague taglines, we found that lower cost, official-looking packages, with clear, highly relevant, benefit-oriented messages, rose to the top. Those are the packages that work in the mail.
While the results were extraordinary for a focus group, they were no revelation for a seasoned copywriter. But they underscore the importance of eschewing some conventional, general ad agency notions of conceptual creativity and asking yourself, objectively,“Does the message of my mailing fight its way to the top of the mailbox for attention?” Your audience will tell you what works best with their responses, but you need to maintain courage to test things some people might find “ugly” compared to your most recent brand-focused print campaign.
As David Ogilvy himself said, “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”