Diagnosis: focus group folly; Prescription: systematic communication

A good friend of mine (who also happens to be a wily and worthy competitor) likes to mock me with the moniker 'Dr. Direct.' I like to believe that it's because of my passionate defense of a discipline that is too often maligned and misunderstood.

A good friend of mine (who also happens to be a wily and worthy competitor) likes to mock me with the moniker ‘Dr. Direct.’ I like to believe that it’s because of my passionate defense of a discipline that is too often maligned and misunderstood. In addition, it might have something to do with my role as vice-chair of the CMA’s Direct Mail Council. (In fact, it probably has more to do with the fact that I’m so easily mocked.)

But whatever the source of his ‘obvious jealously’ (the fact the he remains nameless here is revenge enough), I have to admit it works for me. Here’s why:

Like medicine (with apologies to the medical profession), there are many that believe Direct Marketing is a science. Now, I’ve heard other people I respect say that hardcore direct marketers think of Direct as a science too often. Probably true. But consider this – medicine and direct are governed by ethics. There are tried and true formulas that continue to work. Both focus on solutions. And testing and retesting is at the centre of finding a success.

But as any good direct marketer will tell you, it’s not all about science. Part of it is ‘art.’ Creative. (Think of it as the bedside manner you use to communicate your hypothesis simply and effectively.) But how do you judge the art?

Some people think a focus group is going to tell them which creative concept is most likely to get an envelope opened. The head of my Consumer Insight department says, ‘Think again.’ She believes focus groups are an art too, which is to say, you can’t expect them to answer objective questions. To extend my medical metaphor – you can’t expect patients to make a diagnosis themselves.

Here are the top five reasons why focus groups can’t effectively choose creative.

Creative is subjective. Ask 20 people (after you’ve given them 20 bucks) what creative they like best and you’ll get as many answers as you have people. This is not awareness advertising where you need people to feel a certain reaction from the creative. Direct Mail is not about making people like or dislike a creative execution (although that’s a nice-to-have for the brand). It’s about motivating their spontaneous behaviour to act. A focus group environment doesn’t encourage people to react impulsively to a DM package the way they would at home because…

DM is a guilty pleasure. People react differently in a focus group than they do in the privacy of their own home. (Pay a participant $50 and they think they’re being paid to be arm-chair copywriters and art directors – not to mention marketing professionals – do I sound bitter?) Go ahead, ask someone what they think of DM. Then, consider the revenue generated by mail in Canada last year. Somebody is opening those envelopes and acting – even if they won’t admit it to your face in a focus group.

Focus groups like to play follow-the-leader. Like any microcosm of society, you have leaders, and you have followers. (Ever sat on a jury? Ever been to high school?) Usually the first couple of people to speak take the rest of the group on a ride. After such a strong reaction from one or two people, are the more timid folks going to disagree and risk looking foolish in the eyes of the leader?

Tried-and-true tricks of the trade, when analyzed, just look like tricks. An intriguing teaser on an outer envelope. A time-limited offer. Repetition of benefits. Die-cuts. Call-outs. Metaphors. Formats. Personal language. Use of personal information. Spot colour on a signature. All are used to help motivate an action. All are usually met with disdain when asked about in a focus group. People don’t like to feel manipulated. But that’s exactly what effective DM does. It pushes buttons. It gets people involved. It relates to them on a basic level of need. It addresses common problems and offers a solution. It appeals to their greed, their fears and their desires. It offers peace of mind. It offers hope for the future. Break it all down in a focus group and it simply looks like…well, the ‘J’ word isn’t in my vocabulary, but you get my meaning.

A grain of salt is better than a basket of eggs. Huh? Let me put it this way. If your moderator is adept at managing a group around subjective creative feedback, and your client is able to take that feedback with a grain of salt, then the learning from the group could be useful. For example, maybe the creative overpowers the key communication objective. A good moderator can uncover that without focusing the group on whether they ‘like’ one creative over another. However, if your client puts all their eggs in one basket by expecting the group to pick the creative they ‘like’ best, you’re expecting too much given all the reasons we just discussed above.

Now you’re probably thinking the whiny creative guy doesn’t like focus groups. Not true. There is much to be learned from them if you apply certain communication strategies.

Your moderator must know what he or she is doing. A good moderator knows what questions to ask to ensure that the group stays focused. She asks people to write down their answers before blurting them out. She draws quieter people out, and manages the ‘leaders’ so that they don’t overpower the group. She keeps the group away from subjectivity.

Don’t ask open-ended questions. Close-ended: ‘Which of these six envelopes are you more likely to open?’ ‘What does the teaser mean on this envelope?’ ‘What are they asking you to do here?’ ‘Is this offer compelling?’ Open-ended: ‘Which package do you like best?’ ‘What do you think of these pictures?’ ‘Do you like this headline?’

Focusing on the communication strategy is good. Are you communicating your message clearly? You were right all along. Trust your experts and your instincts. If you ask the right questions, you will probably find out that good creative came out of good direction. It all starts with the brief. If you go into focus groups with creative that gets blown away, you should probably go back to the brief and analyze that.

Finally, the best prescription for a successful communication is to take preventative medicine. Research before the creative is briefed. That way, you know what hot buttons to push and what insights you can leverage for more effective creative. Remember, creative is that ethereal thing that is hard to explain, but if well-conceived, can be relevant and meaningful to the right audience. Have faith. The (art and) science works.

Bryan Tenenhouse is SVP, creative director at Toronto-based VBDI. He can be reached at (416) 487-6446 or on the Web at www.vbdi.com.