People like people

Senior business folk like numbers. Facts and statistics to base decisions on and to evaluate performance. It’s both rational and sensible.

But occasionally, it is beneficial not to be rational or sensible. As the Apple “Think Different” campaign so memorably reminded us.

Organisations should have plenty of talented members capable of coming up with creative and innovative strategies to immediate and potential business concerns.

But when you want the opposite to rational or sensible, the best thing might be to consult the public. Whether consumers, users, viewers, prospects, advocates, rejecters, indifferents, promoters, lovers, haters or otherwise, each person will have a unique take on a situation.

Each person has their own behaviours, needs, habits, lifestyle, attitudes, hopes, fears and opinions which can relate directly or indirectly to an organisation, market or industry.

And every so often it is beneficial for senior business folk to hear these. To be reminded, inspired, provoked, amused, horrified, informed, affirmed or corrected.

What they hear will either be

  • Something they already knew, and should respond to
  • Something they already knew, but shouldn’t respond to
  • Something they didn’t know, and should respond to
  • Something they didn’t know, but shouldn’t respond to

All are valuable. Whether delivered through ethnographic videos, photo logs, social media listening, user-generated content competitions or through other means, each new piece of stimulus helps evolve the thinking of those making the key decisions.

Facts and numbers are powerful. But people are also powerful. Even hearing the same opinion heard many times before but by a different voice in an unusual situation creates new context and new meaning.

Therefore, we should strive to complement our rational decision-making with the creative expression that comes from voices that may not be found in the board room.

sk

NB: Inspiration for the post’s title is from the Riz MC song of the same name (who, to my knowledge, is the first and thus far only one of my university peers to achieve public success – measured by having a Wikipedia page). The lyrics have nothing to do with the content above, but the title led me to start thinking in this direction.

 

Malcolm Tucker’s Guide on How to Use a Focus Group

Malcolm Tucker of The Thick of It/In the LoopI was recently given The Thick of It: The Missing DoSAC files – a book that is ostensibly the lost secret governmental files of one Malcolm Tucker, the political spin doctor featured in The Thick of It on TV and In The Loop in the cinema.

Among the many funny segments in the book is one particularly pertinent to this blog: a guide on how to use a focus group. He is referring primarily to political focus groups, but his points are applicable across the research spectrum.

Before dispensing his advice, Tucker makes it very clear (I’ve expunged most of the fruity language) that focus groups are not helpful. Among the reasons are

  • They are made up of members of the public who are intrinsically unreliable/ lop-sided/ racist/ mental
  • They are ‘run’ by marketing ‘people’
  • Putting a bunch of people with nothing better to do in an airless basement can’t end well – “At best, you’ll get a Downfall parody you can put on the net”

I think that is fair enough. Furthermore, his advice on getting the best from focus groups is better than some things I’ve heard from professional researchers:

  • Do not listen to one person in particular – one person is not representative of anything. Even if they agree with you.
  • If there is no consensus then ignore everything everyone says
  • If there is consensus, listen to it and then ask yourself if it is mad
  • If it isn’t mad, then give it serious consideration. After that, reject it out of hand as “the purpose of a focus group is to give the illusion that we are listening. It is not to form policy”. If it were, these people would be the Cabinet

Tucker also usefully identifies eleven types of people to beware of

  • Motorway Man – he spends a lot of time on the motorway so is, by definition, out of touch
  • Holby City Woman – “She watches Holby City. She is a human vacuum”
  • The Disillusioned Voter
  • The Young Person Who Went Straight From School To Working in a Key-Cutters – gets all his/her information from things mates have said in the pub
  • The Student - only there in the hope of getting free biscuits and red bull
  • The Woman Who Will Agree With Everything That Is Said Because That Is What She Thinks You Want
  • The Fucking Guardian Reader – “If you want to know what a Guardian reader thinks you can read the Guardian. Plus, that way, you get a crossword”
  • The Fucking Telegraph Reader – “A ruddy-faced village idiot who looks like he’s directly descended from Lord Melchett in Blackadder II
  • The Local Business Man – only interested in issues concerning him
  • Dot Cotton’s Younger, Less Glamorous Sister – only there for a bit of company
  • The Fucking Weirdo Who Says Stuff Either Too Quiet Or Too Loud Which Doesn’t Make Sense And Trails Off Into Nothing Or Ends Mid-Thought Thereby Making Everyone Feel Uncomfortable - ignore them. Unless they’re in charge of the focus group

The final points to bear in mind are:

  • The Under 30s are too young to know anything
  • People between the age of 30 and 40 are only interested in stuff that directly pertains to them/their children
  • “The Over 40s are losing their faculties and no longer able to absorb or process information properly”

“And remember: People talk shit. They talk even more shit when they are asked to manufacture opinions on subjects they are totally ignorant of and/or couldn’t give a gnat’s anus about”.

Sound advice. For more of his (along with Nicola, Olly, Glenn, Terri and Jamie’s) pearls of wisdom, go get the book

sk

Should we listen to every conversation?

Over on the Essential Research blog, I have responded to a post by a social media conversation monitor who eulogised the death of focus groups.

In that post, I have outlined why focus groups themselves aren’t the issue; rather it is shoddy application. Here, I want to expand on that a bit. It is my contention that conversation monitoring is more flawed than traditional research, and should not be used for major corporate decision.

Alan Partridge once declared himself to be a homosceptic, and in a not dissimilar way I am doubtful of the efficacy of social media monitoring.

In terms of numbers signing up, the social space is still increasing. However, the number of active users within this universe will remain limited – the late arrivals will be the more passive and occasional users. This space is increasingly asymmetric, with network effects and power laws distorting the flow of information.

Topics of conversation will by nature revolve around the major players – whether individuals, blogs or organisations. The larger the hub, the weaker the concentration of signal to noise.

As a small example, consider blog commenting. Aside from the odd spam comment, the contributions I get here are all genuinely helpful. Because this is a relatively small blog, there are few people commenting out of self-interest. Moving to the larger sites, comments are filled with spam, self-promotion and unquestioning advocacy/contrariness. Genuine debate and discussion still exists, but it is diluted by the inanity surrounding it. This on its own creates difficulties for sentiment analysis, but clever filters can overcome this.

But despite the internet being open, we will cluster around likeminds. Group think creates an echo chamber. danah boyd has pointed out that teenagers network with pre-existing friends. It is my observation that the majority of adults network with those in their pre-existing spheres. Planners chat to planners. Cyclists to cyclists. Artists to artists. Mothers to Mothers. These categories aren’t mutually exclusive, but the crossover is minimal compared to likeminds.

Remember the Motrin outrage? The mainstream majority remain blissfully ignorant. This may have been because it was resolved before it had a chance to escalate to the mainstream media, but it nevertheless shows the limited nature of social media echos.

Of course, some products or services target the early adopting, tech savvy ubergeeks and so for these companies they should obviously engage where their audience is.

But for the rest? Despite my assertions above, I do view monitoring as useful, but only as a secondary tool. Tracking conversations as they happen is a useful feedback mechanism, but few companies are going to be nimble enough to implement it immediately (once they have separated the meat from the gristle and verified that this opinion is indeed consensus).

Surveys and groups are indeed limited by taking place in a single point in time, and through these it is difficult to extrapolate long-term reaction. The Pepsi taste test being one notorious example.

But there are plenty of longitudinal research methodologies that are suitable. Long-term ethnographic or observational studies can track whether attitudes or behaviour do in fact change over time. These can be isolated in pilots or test cases, so that any negative feedback can be ironed out before the product or service is unleashed to the general public.

This is where traditional research still prevails: the controlled environment. Artificiality can be a benefit if it means shielding a consumer basis from something wildly different from what they are used to.

This takes time though, and some companies may prefer to iterate as they go, and “work in beta”. Facebook is an example of this – they have encountered hostility over news feeds, Beacon, redesigns and terms of service.Each time, they have ridden the storm and come back stronger than ever.

Is this a case study for conversation monitoring effectiveness? Not really. They listened to feedback, but only implemented it when it didn’t affect their core strategy. So, the terms of service changed back but the news feed and redesign stayed. Features intrinsic to its success.

Should Scyfy have gone back to being the Sci-Fi channel due to the initial outrage? Perhaps. Personally, I think it is a rather silly name but it didn’t do Dave any harm. If they have done their research properly, they should remain confident in their decision.

Conversation monitoring can be useful, but it should remain a secondary activity. A tiny minority have a disproportionately loud voice, and their opinions shouldn’t be taken as representative of the majority. When iterating in public, there is a difficult balance between reacting too early to an unrepresentative coalition, and acting too late and causing negative reaction among a majority of users/customers.

Because of this, major decisions should be taken before going to market. Tiny iterations can be implemented after public feedback, but the core strategy should remain sound and untouched.Focus groups and other research methodologies still have an important place in formulating strategy.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeff-bauche/

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