Making the most of your research groups

Graeme Trayner has found that if you give the public the power to contribute rather than simply respond, market research can produce innovative solutions

Market research has traditionally been seen as the enemy of the creative community. Too often it is perceived as leading to the watering down of imaginative concepts, and the rejection of brave ideas. But things are changing.

Sadly, the annals of marketing are littered with examples of how successful concepts were dismissed by research participants before they reached the market: the Walkman, herbal teas, and cash machines to name just a few.

In this context, the term ‘focus group’ has gained symbolic importance. The use of focus groups is seen by many to demonstrate a slavish reliance on the passing whims of public opinion, rather than illustrating a meaningful attempt to understand the needs and concerns of people. However, new thinking shows how research can bring about greater creativity, and not necessarily lead to a loss of inspiration.

Much of the failure to help creativity lies with the way research has traditionally been conducted. In a conventional focus group, a facilitator engages six to eight ‘respondents’ in discussion while the client observes behind a one-way mirror. This set-up often leads to a passive process, where people just sit and pass comment on prescribed concepts and ideas. Inevitably, this results in a situation where people find it easier to criticise, rather than make constructive comments. Clients and respondents also never interact.

In order to move beyond this impasse, we’ve adopted new research approaches where people work together with clients. In contrast to the passive approach of the focus group, our research forums are designed to get people working with decision-makers on developing new ideas. By exploring issues together, organisations and people can better understand each other. This is not just about helping clients to get closer to customers, but rather empowering people to develop their own ideas.

People enjoy the opportunity to shape an organisation’s thinking. As opposed to the feeling of being a ‘lab rat’ in traditional focus groups, research participants become consultants themselves. Innovation in this area has largely come from the public sector, where progressive organisations have taken the lead in persuading their policy teams to work with people on shaping new solutions.

Opinion Leader Research recently conducted workshops for the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health, where patients worked with healthcare workers and managers to identify priorities on health policy. The workshops allowed people to develop new solutions with policymakers, whereas a conventional focus group might have struggled to move beyond the usual gripes about the state of the NHS.

Introducing lay strategists

What does this mean for design and branding? Well, why shouldn’t brand research connect with people as an active resource, instead of using them as a passive sounding board? In a society characterised by information overload, the average person is more than adept at working like a consultant, as opposed to a mere respondent. Through exposure to, on average, 2500 messages a day, people have become extremely aware of the methods of modern marketing and communications. As anyone who has conducted advertising or creative research in the past few years will attest, people are more than happy to talk about production values, media strategies and subliminal messages.

As a result, creativity can be harnessed by research that empowers people to act as ‘amateur’ or ‘lay’ strategists on behalf of a brand or product. Our research shows that people who are influential in their own peer groups or social networks – ‘protagonists’ – are particularly adept at acting as consultants.

Working for major companies, we have asked protagonists to develop marketing strategies, devise PR and advertising campaigns, create new products and services, and define brand essences. By persuading client teams to work with people on these sorts of tasks, companies can discover how to further connect with customers.

Tapping into people’s natural creativity also allows businesses to meet the growing demand for involvement and interaction. As a result of cultural changes, people now want to play a greater role in decision-making. The popularity of programmes such as I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, The Big Read and Restoration is derived from their ability to make people feel empowered. Moreover, digital media and communication formats such as blogs, discussion boards and personalised TV formats are based on greater interaction. Brand research needs to respond to this shift, and involve people in decisions rather than just listen to what they have to say.

By tearing down the one-way mirror and getting people to work with clients, research can immeasurably improve the creative process. If we move beyond the focus group, researchers and creatives can discover that involving customers does not necessarily result in bland and anodyne thinking. We need to see research as a means to tap into creativity, rather than as an obstacle to imagination.

Using research to benefit your brand

•Move beyond the focus group

•Tear down the one way mirror

•Bring people in as ‘lay strategists’ not respondents

•Tap into people’s natural creativity

•Engage with ‘protagonists’ who are influential among their peer group

Graeme Trayner is a director at Opinion Leader Research

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