Cheap, Easy Research Tip 3: Eavesdrop

This is the third installment in a six-part series about research. Many arts organizations avoid research because they think it’s expensive or complicated, but that’s not a good excuse for staying ignorant. There are plenty of ways to gain useful insight into new audience motives without having to spend a lot of money.

Focus group research is one of the most fascinating and most dangerous ways to learn what people think. It’s fascinating because if you do it right you can listen to potential customers talking frankly and honestly about your product or your marketing choices. It’s dangerous because it’s easy to manipulate and the results are easy to misconstrue.

Ideally focus group research should be organized by an independent research company that recruits the people you most want to learn from, invites them to a neutral facility and encourages them to discuss what you’re most interested in hearing – while you watch and listen behind a two-way mirror. The respondents know you’re there so it’s not entirely natural, but it’s a great way to gain insight that can’t be gotten in any other way.

Unfortunately, it’s expensive and imprecise. Focus group research should probably be conducted as part of a range of research activities to add qualitative color and depth to your intelligence gathering activities. Clearly, though, such comprehensive research is out of reach for many arts organizations.

That said, there’s nothing to stop arts organizations from talking to small groups of customers in an organized fashion. If you want to invite museum members to discuss benefit offerings, or series subscribers to discuss packages or single-ticket buyers to weigh in on new marketing campaign ideas, you certainly may, provided you follow some simple – but extremely important – guidelines. Informal focus groups can be a valuable extension of the process we discussed in Tip 1 if you’re willing to use a little bit more self-discipline and organizational rigor.

Suggested Guidelines

A simple online search for “focus group guidelines” will provide plenty of useful details, but there are a few general precautions worth mentioning here:

1. The most important is to avoid influencing the results by keeping yourselves, as much as possible, out of the process. At every step along the way you’ll have opportunities to nudge the information gathering in a direction that confirms what you want to believe or shields you from unwanted criticism. Since the purpose of focus groups is to get honest, direct, unfiltered feedback from real customers, you’ll want to keep the process as open and unbiased as possible – even if it hurts.

2. You can easily recruit any type of audience that’s in your database. If you’re curious about new audiences that aren’t in your database, start with the folks who inhabit the outermost fringes of your existing audience – the one-off buyers, discount buyers, late responders, once-in-a-blue-moon attendees, etc. Churn and new audiences are essentially the same thing so the more you learn about your churn, the more you’ll know about new audiences.

3. A good moderator is essential. Ideally, you’ll want a trained outsider, but if you can’t afford one, see if you can find a freelancer who’s willing to do some work for in-kind compensation or a grad student who’s studying research methods and needs some practical experience. If you have to use someone on staff, make sure he or she bones up on moderating techniques and maintains appropriate objectivity.

4. Listen unobtrusively. The great thing about agency focus groups is that you can put eight or ten staffers behind those two-way mirrors. But if everyone’s going to be in the same room, you may want only one or two staffers listening in. You moderator can introduce you as interested observers, but otherwise your role will be to blend into the woodwork.

5. Listen with humility. The most fascinating focus groups I ever participated in were for a Broadway show that was tanking because of some bad executive marketing decisions. For three hours we listened to regular theatergoers telling us with honest, thoughtful candor exactly how our messaging was missing the mark, but when the lights came up the executive producer stood up and said, “Well, that was a colossal waste of time. What do these people know about producing theatre?”

6. Add focus group results to the rest of your research and look for places where your collective findings overlap.

Any arts organization that gets in the habit of bringing customers together from time to time to ask them what they think can’t fail to make more informed, more productive marketing choices.


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