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Don’t assume you know what your audience wants. Ask them!

Posted by Danny Whatmough on 6th August 2009

An interview with Dom Hawkings from The Insight Business

How much do you really know about your target customers?  How old are they?  What are they interested in?  How do they travel to work? Do they even read trade journals?  How do they communicate with friends?  What influences their purchase decisions? What keeps them up at night?

Understanding your audience properly has got to be the starting point for any effective PR and marketing campaign. We are all getting better at filtering out marketing messages and competition for share of voice is fierce, so now is not the time to make assumptions about your audience.

With this is mind, we caught up with Dom Hawkings, Director at The Insight Business to find out how to use focus groups to get inside the minds of buyers of technology products and services from both a corporate and consumer perspective. Wildfire have recently partnered with them on research projects to help our clients adopt a more audience-centric approach to communications.

WF: Can a focus group really change the way a company does business?

DH: Clients truly start to understand their target audiences from first hand experience of watching and listening to them. With this understanding of customers and prospects, the company can start to be driven by what their market actually wants, rather than what they think their market should want. And this can completely change the way a company does business.

In many focus groups we have run, reactions to ideas or concepts have radically changed how clients thought they were going to communicate in terms of ad campaigns, re-branding etc. Some have even led to upcoming product launches being cancelled or completely re-prioritised and some have identified completely new markets.

WF: What are the five top tips you can provide when it comes to understanding audiences?


Be open minded. This means being brave enough to ask questions that might elicit answers and opinions that you don’t really want to hear. If research doesn’t challenge your preconceptions and sometimes make uncomfortable viewing, it isn’t being done properly.

Use an objective third party to talk to customers and prospects for you. Existing clients rarely tell you what they really think of you as an organisation, especially if you have built up a personal relationship with them – just think how often you complain to your friends about the quality or portion size in a restaurant but when the waiter asks how it is you all pipe up “fine thanks”.

Be a little humble. You may spend every waking hour thinking about your company’s products or services, but for your customers and prospects they rarely occupy quite so much of their consciousness. So if some carefully targeted communication gets little reaction or a product enhancement is not greeted with cheers, take it on the chin.

Do it early enough. Input from your audience about your products, services, marketing campaigns etc. can be invaluable, so don’t leave it to the last minute. There is no point getting this input at a stage where little can be changed – it is normally when this happens when you find out that your audience hates whatever it is you have just committed to doing.

Involve all the stakeholders. Focus groups and other research are not just of interest to marketing types. Get the sales and product teams involved; they will find it fascinating and they are much more likely to act constructively on the outputs.

WF: What’s the most unusual thing you’ve discovered in a focus group?

DH: Some years ago we were running some groups in Italy, looking at mobile phone use. One woman openly explained that she did not like the idea of video calls because it was harder to conceal where you really were. Her concern was that if her husband called he may be able to see when she was at her lover’s house! This raised a polite laugh among the group, but I was surprised when another three women agreed and went on earnestly to talk about why this was a major flaw in the technology!

Danny Whatmough