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October 26, 2006
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Beyond the focus group: how live marketing can transform market research




In today’s crowded, competitive business environment, testing the market is more important than ever, as it can help you tailor your offering more closely to the consumers you hope will become your customers. Done properly it really can give you an edge.
 
Incredibly, the most popular way of doing this is the focus group, which is becoming a tad predictable, to say the least. Even if you’ve never been invited to one yourself, you probably know someone who has. They generally all take a similar format: invite a cross section of the perceived market who are prepared to say anything for around £50-100, free food and free booze – invariably this ends up being friends, friends of friends or acquaintances of friends of the agency that’s setting it up. The ‘sample’ then sit around, chat and are asked a few questions about their perceptions of a brand or a product.
 
To show just how dodgy this sample often is, I know someone who went along to a focus group to fit the ‘heterosexual male in his thirties with a girlfriend’ profile. He was in fact gay! And we’ve all heard of the ‘professional focus groupies’, who cruise focus groups for fun, food, booze and cash – yes, they really should get out more.
 
Even if you had the perfect sample of consumers, the standard focus group environment doesn’t really deliver the goods when it comes to inspiring those involved to deliver meaningful responses.
 
“It’s like the difference between watching a holiday programme on TV and actually visiting a place,” explains brand agency Sterling’s Anne Bahr Thompson.
 
That’s why a focus group as a method of researching your market can, and generally does, fall flat on its face – and that’s without taking into account that all your competitors are probably doing the same thing. That is unless they’ve realised that to get a more accurate assessment of consumer perceptions, its far better to create an experience that truly reflects the brand, product or even service you’re looking for opinions on. Yes, live and experiential marketing can turn the focus group from a hackneyed cliché into a research event that delivers key insight into a given market.
 
“Thinking of research as an event where you ‘feel’ what consumers say first hand makes such a difference,” says Thompson, whose agency has been pushing the boundaries of market research, taking a more live and experiential approach that has been paying off.
 
“Food ‘raves’ are something we’ve found useful to test food and wine concepts and even packaging,” continues Thompson. “We bring people together with a chef, who’s also an actor, to cook a meal. They choose ingredients or a wine to drink as appropriate and then after they’re done, when they’re eating the meal, we have a more formal discussion.

“Hosting a film screening or putting on a play before formally asking the questions to hand is another technique we use. The film is chosen or play written to open their mind to a concept.  

“Our US office is just organising a debate with respondents for and respondents against a product (a food brand). Rather than set it up as a group discussion, they are making it a bit like a TV show.”
 
So that’s the theory, now go practice it – before your competitors get there first!
 
Look out for examples of companies that have used live and experiential marketing to further their market research on EVENTS:review over the coming weeks


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