Consumer Dialog: In-Depth Discovery

It's the first and most fundamental Law Of Business: The customer is always right -- even when he's illogical, inarticulate, unimaginative and dead wrong. And for that reason over a billion dollars are spent annually in Focus Groups to determine what's really going on in the consumer's mind and how to use that insight to create corporate growth.

Unfortunately Focus Groups are often the right idea but wrong execution. Group dynamics being what they are, individuals are easily influenced by peer pressure and politically correct opinions. Pressed for ideas, most opt to follow the leader. And the 8-10 minutes of cumulative "air time" allocated to individual respondents in a typical group session is hardly the kind of "quality time" required to get to the bottom of complex -- and often personal -- need structures that drive purchase behavior. Better to limit respondents to no more than two at a time and conduct in-depth sessions custom designed to maximize the output of qualitative explorations.

But managers still aren't out of the woods. Because the individual responsible for coaxing insight out of even unbiased consumers typically is a researcher who lacks the business experience to know if the nugget that has just been dredged up is iron pyrite or high assay gold. It's a case of a blind-to-business-realities moderator leading a vision-impaired end-user. Too often an obscure spark of information that could have led to a major opportunity flickers momentarily and is allowed to sputter out. But replace the research oriented moderator with a marketing trained interrogator and add someone representing the client's perspective -- marketing, R&D or research staff -- and the joint-venture represents a highly productive partnership comprised of individuals skilled at both discovering information and using it.

The objective is an uncomplicated one -- generate usable and unbiased consumer information. Particularly information that individuals responsible for creating plans, strategies and end-point action can use in their functional responsibilities.

This exploratory research tool pairs consumer twosomes with a moderator/marketer and a corporate manager to create an environment in which ideas can arise, be nurtured and be channeled into productive opportunities. Every encouragement is given for the unexpected to emerge. When it does, the two individuals conducting the exploration are uniquely qualified to recognize -- and pursue -- an emerging business opportunity.

The process used to conduct Discovery sessions is designed to reflect project objectives. It ranges from Voice-of-Consumer methodology used to benchmark competitive technology to Pictured Aspirations Technique (PAT) projection techniques used to discretely probe ego-driven needs. Each session is controlled by a pre-determined Goals and Objectives statement and a discussion guide used to outline the flow of the interrogation and coordinate efforts of the co-moderators.

Respondents are screened, recruited and then focused on key areas of interest to managers by pre-meeting assignments. Consumers may be asked to keep a product usage related diary. Conduct a wardrobe inventory of casual wear apparel. Videotape a software installation. Test-drive a Toyota then a Suburu and fill in a short questionnaire comparing the two. The experience focuses respondents on issues they will be required to discuss later. In depth.

To permit the co-moderators to develop an in-depth investigation of each emerging opportunity -- and to avoid peer pressure, politically correct and me-too opinions -- the consumer participants are limited to two pre-screened respondents for each session. A 60 minute interview covers users' internally directed motivators such as self-perceptions, needs and envisioned usage opportunities and still allows time for a no-nonsense exploration of the perceived limitations of product technology inherent in leading brands. Ultimately the information is assimilated into patterns modeling key consumer perceptions and mapping unexploited opportunities.

Allergan used Discovery Sessions to put the individuals who developed contact lens care products in touch with both the optometrists who prescribed lens care products and the end users who followed -- or more accurately partially followed -- the care-giver's brand and usage directions. The input contradicted "known information" and significantly altered corporate strategies for managing medical sales/detailing efforts, retail/on-shelf and packaging strategies as well as new product development efforts.

Discovery sessions put the brand manager for Levi's Womenswear in touch with users to learn how they felt about tight fitting jeans -- and discovered polarized attitudes among eighteen and twenty-eight year olds. Put the marketing director of Collagen in touch with forty-four year old women to discover filling crows feet and "smile lines" had more to do with self esteem than appearance to others. Put the director of marketing for Heublein in touch with female wine drinkers to learn "dry" and "oak-aged" were male descriptors and far less appealing than "soft" and "fruity."

Potential applications are as limitless as the need for better information in an information-driven economy. The definition spans hi tech to low touch products and innovator to laggard consumers. Candidates include Oracle's managers of web TV hoping to cross the chasm between early adopters and the early majority...and Foster Farms' efforts to develop new products designed to coerce pre-teens to "drink your milk."

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