While we've talked for over a year about how social networks may alter the landscape of retailing, many companies are finding another use for social networks: as modern and more interesting, focus groups. Whereas focus tests were out of reach to smaller companies with tight budgets, social network-based focus groups (which I'll call Focus Groups 2.0) are a significantly less expensive entry into the world of focus testing.
Traditional focus groups work like this:
On the downside, this "town hall" type group can fall victim to bullying. One loud participant can sway or intimidate the others from expressing differing opinions.
Focus groups organized and run by professionals are invaluable, and I'd never say the current social networking version can completely replace them. But real focus groups get expensive, and there are many benefits to Focus Group 2.0.
Focus Groups: A New Approach
Smart companies are creating new, ongoing dialogues with their customers via social networks. Most use them as another promotional channel, but some are really taking an interest in their customers and their opinions.
At Shop.org last week, I sat down with Jordan Nasser, who's in charge of online marketing and creative at H&M. He created the H&M social networking pages on Facebook and MySpace. Each site has a different look and feel, owing to the different audiences on the two platforms and the technical limitations of each platform.
The H&M pages are wildly successful, with over 83,000 friends on MySpace and over 67,000 "fans" on Facebook. Because H&M doesn't have an online store in the U.S., they use social networks to increase brand awareness and help create dialogue between H&M fans. This has organically grown to also include H&M employees, who regularly contribute to the message boards. Where some companies would fear allowing their employees to have an open platform on which to directly interact with customers, H&M sees the benefits of empowering staff this way.
On the H&M sites, Jordan (and others H&M staffers) routinely answer users' questions. While one might worry these forums would turn into another customer service channel, the forums are littered more with questions about store openings, store events, and general brand questions. Oh, and lots of testimonials about how much people love the brand.
While this direct dialogue with real consumers (not just people fitting a demographic in a focus group) is great passive feedback, H&M and other companies also take a more active approach to conduct focus testing with this group of customers. Even if the customer doesn't get the answer they wanted, they express how grateful they are to talk to a human being. Consider how much more connected they must be to the brand because someone like Jordan is talking directly with them, versus how they probably view more "anonymous" brands like Sony (where it's nearly impossible to speak with a human).
Last spring, H&M put 50 user-submitted T-shirt designs on their MySpace page and asked visitors to vote for their favorite. Within four weeks they had over 5,000 votes and a clear winner. They mass-produced the shirt and put it in over 20 stores. The shirts sold out almost immediately.
The social networks also solicit user feedback in this manner. When Facebook decided to redesign its pages, it showed users a preview and asked for feedback. Retailers launching new functionality on their sites could easily do this via these social networks. Online polls, surveys and message boards are a quick and easy way to get feedback from real-world users in a comfortable environment.
One problem with real focus groups: participants often try to be smarter than they are, or project what they "think" everyone would want onto their own needs. Online focus groups (which are so informal the users don't really think of them as focus groups at all) most likely generate more honest feedback. Moreover, these customers actually spend money with you, they're not "demographic fits" that may or may not care about your brand. If indeed your brand is how people see it (to paraphrase a familiar quote), the knowledge gained from these people (who are living and breathing your brand) is invaluable.
An Alternative, Not a Replacement
Focus group companies truly are the experts when it comes to asking a group of people the right questions. But one-to-one interaction devoid of a group mentality is probably more honest and interesting than group testing. Social networks allow this to scale in a way traditional focus groups can't. Plus, it's significantly less expensive to throw a few questions up as on online poll and see what the response is.
Taking a lesson from H&M and other retailers, the first step is to create social networking pages on the various networks that people like and with which they want to interact. Next, go through the same steps you'd take when creating a traditional focus group questionnaire, but tailor it to the online experience. Add interactivity, especially in cases where you're asking about possible new features and functionality.
Done correctly, you might just find a treasure trove of user knowledge you always thought was too expensive or difficult to obtain.
Questions, thoughts, comments? Let me know!
Until next time...
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Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at Shop.org and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.
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