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

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Social media dichotomies

I’ve been having a think about the different types of social media services. Structurally, different services can be very different. Below are a few bipolar scales that different services can find themselves upon

Structure

Public <——————-> Private

Permanent <————-> Transient

Centralised <————-> Decentralised

Hierarchical<————> Non-hierarchical

Automatic <————–> Manual

Exclusive <—————> Inclusive

Zero-sum <—————> Shared gain

Single-focus <————> Multiple focus

Push <———————> Pull

Usage

Personal <—————> Professional

Active <—————–> Ambient

Flexible <—————> Fixed

Expert <—————-> Amateur

Give <——————-> Take

Create <—————-> Consume

I realise that without proper definitions, several of these scales overlap with one another. Nevertheless, it is my starting point and I’d be interested to know if I’ve overlooked any important dimensions.

sk

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Cutting the current

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, particularly since I never actually seem to keep them. But I start with good intentions, so I suppose that is at least something.

In 2009, I vowed to read less, but better. That sort of happened, but the mass of information makes it difficult to resist.

In 2010, I attempted to widen my reading sources, by rotating my online sources of news. I lasted for about a fortnight, but more pressing priorities meant it quickly fell by the wayside.

Nevertheless, I return once again with a resolution for 2011.

It is quite similar to the 2009 resolution in that it is another attempt to combat information overload. But rather than simply say I will try to read more but better, this is hopefully a process that will help me achieve it.

In 2011, I will take a conscious step-back from real-time content consumption, and intentionally read (most) news and commentary much later than their time of publishing.

I’m not going to be as prescriptive as saying it will be 12 hours, or 48 hours, a week or a month. Particularly, since posts on MediaGuardian will be more time-sensitive than those on New Yorker. But I’m going to avoid the regular refreshing of Google Reader, and let links build up.

The last couple of months has proven the efficiency of this appraoch to me. An incredibly busy November and December meant I had to cut down my reading and surfing. Over the Christmas break, I have largely caught up on my RSS feeds and bookmarks. Google Reader trends tells me that in the last 30 days I’ve read circa 2,500 items. That would previously have been circa 3,500, while the current figure also includes items over a month old.

But there are many other benefits.

In the character of C’s, here are five interrelated reasons why I think this approach will suit me.  No fancy graphics. Sorry.

SIDENOTE: I’ve exaggerated it for the purpose of this post, but what is with the proliferation of lists consumed with Cs – is it the most alliterative word for media and technology related content? Whether Brian Solis5 C’s of community or Srinivasana et al’s eight factors that influence customer e-loyalty, its popularity is clear.

1. Concentration through centralisation and classification

What I found most striking in my catch-up of links was that I was far more selective in what I chose to read. When caught in the fire-hose, I may have read the same story four times from four different sources, not knowing who else would be picking up on the topic. Now, I’m able to select from a complete list of sources on my radar. A more discriminating selection process will also free up more time to do other important things. Like sleep.

It also benefits long-form content consumption, since I’m no longer in a hurry to steam through articles. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Vanity Fair, Atlantic and New Yorker pieces courtesy of services such as Give Me Something to Read – here is their best of 2010

2. Curation through collation and compilation

I’m not totally sold on curation – services like paper.li just annoy me. But trusted editors can make a difference. I don’t necessarily need to scour every link looking for the most interesting pieces, when people such as Neil Perkin crowdsource recommendations or people like Bud Caddell point to interesting things.

Incidentally, I may once again resurrect my link updates. I may not. It depends how this experiment goes.

3. Conversation through community and comments

Although the number of comments might be dwindling (or merely refocusing on the biggest sites with an active community), they can still be incredibly valuable.

Initial comments tend to be from sycophants or – in the case of social media monitoring blogs – companies such as Alterian or Radian 6 proving their scraping technology works but later comments can be insightful in their critiquing or extending the authors points. Helpfully, Disqus now sorts comments based on popularity (I should really start voting).

4. Context through critique and connections

Whether it is through comments or from myself connecting different commentaries or posts, different items can be combined or juxtaposed for context and additional understanding. And often it is the connectors that are more interesting than the nodes themselves.

5. Contemplation through consideration and cogitation

Finally, moving away from real-time motivates reflection and critical thinking. The need to rush into a response has been marginalised. I can ponder and muse before I decide whether to write a response to something or not. Nicholas Carr would be proud.

To make this work, each person will have a unique system that works for them. Mine is using Read It Later – a bookmarking service that syncs across devices. It also works within Google Reader, though I suspect I may need to also use stars if the volume of bookmarks needs additional features to distinguish information (on time-sensitivity, if not topic)

Of course, there are drawbacks to this approach.

  • It effectively makes me a lurker rather than an active contributor, so I’ll be taking more than giving.
  • I will continue to link, comment and blog but most likely after the fact, once people have moved on and the topic has lost some relevance. A balance will undoubtedly need to be struck.
  • I’ll have lower visibility through not being not being an early commenter or tweeter, and link-baiting my wares – though Twitter does seem to have made blog commenting and responding far more infrequent anyway. I think I can live with a lower Klout score, since I’m not doing this to reach an arbitrary number of undifferentiated people.

Let’s see how I get on.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/36593372@N04/5198073390/

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