Spontaneous Focus Groups

Cardiopump class was about to start, but you could tell it would be a few more minutes. People were still picking out weights, the leader was making those enthusiastic squeaks they make, and most of us were standing around vaguely kicking our feet.

I was thinking about the website I’m working on, naturally, so I asked my neighbor, “If you were going to buy a few hundred glowsticks for a block party, you know the products will all be pretty much the same everywhere, so how would you choose where to order them?”

Suddenly a group of women came at me, like geese if you have bread crumbs at the pond. I was slightly alarmed for a moment, but then I realized I had happened upon one of those rare but wonderful serendipitous focus groups.

I like to base copywriting decisions on data: information from Analytics about how people currently find and use the site, information from direct testing and observation, and also information from the target audience of a site when I have access to it.

All of a sudden, I had access to it. These were the PTA presidents, the block party organizers, the prom sponsors — the people, in short, who actually do go online and buy a few hundred glowsticks.

“Free shipping,” one said firmly. “They say they have low prices, and then they gouge you with the shipping.”

Others nodded. “And it has to be easy,” another said with equal firmness. “I don’t want to have to search around to find the prices.”

“I hate when you get all the way through checkout and then find out the shipping costs.”

Things wound down after a bit, so I asked, “Would you try to buy locally first before you went online?”

“Sure — because of the shipping!”

These ladies really cared a lot about shipping.

“Would you care if they were nice people or anything?” I asked.

“You’re not going to develop a relationship with them,” one said.

“It’s not like you’re planning a wedding with them,” another agreed. “If everything goes right, you’ll just order the stuff and never talk to them at all.”

The class leader began making more directed squeaks at that point, so we wandered back to our places, but I was feeling pretty lucky. So often I have to go over to the animal sciences department or call engineers or something.

If you are lucky enough to encounter a spontaneous focus group, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Listen. If you jump in and start contributing, you will skew your results. Just set the situation up and let the group talk. You’re the observer.
  • Watch. Often, in a group, the people who don’t agree will say nothing rather than disagree out loud. It’s worth making an effort to talk to those people separately to find out their views.
  • Ask. Once the consensus is established and the conversation is settling down, ask questions that get at the same information in a different way. In the example above, all roads led to Rome, or rather shipping costs. Several different approaches to the same data will confirm your impressions, and then you can restate what you hear without leading the discussion in an unnatural way.

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