Last year a new Publicis Groupe initiative conducted qualitative research for the French election.
The initial response from participants was pretty much in line with the consensus among French voters: Nicolas Sarkozy was “scary” — an unknown entity with a lot of ideas, but also a candidate who was viewed as young, ambitious, impulsive, and a departure from the political establishment characterized by former leaders Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterrand.
That reinforcement of the consensus view might have been the end result if not for the difference in the research method: Rather than pack up their opinions, along with their coats, after three hours in a focus group, the participants continued to discuss the election in a closed-community blog for the next two weeks. During that time, they arrived at a different conclusion about Sarkozy that would foreshadow the results of the election.
During the monitored conversations, 250 bloggers moved beyond their early reactions to the candidates and onto a more thoughtful discussion of France and the need for change from the political status quo.
Companies, of course, have increasingly tapped into the potential of consumer-generated media for market research. Blogs may have initially proven more threat than resource, but monitoring that community chatter — a practice born of necessity — has since evolved into a means of tracking consumer perceptions. Marketers now use their corporate blogs as an extension of public relations and customer service, and it seems inevitable that qualitative research would migrate online as well.
Now firms with expertise ranging from research and word of mouth to digital media are setting up closed communities for clients to tap into the nuances, the spontaneity and the language of consumers engaging in a leisurely chat, a different dynamic to one where they sit face-to-face in a focus group for a prescribed period of time. Some of the initiatives focus on a specific topic for a couple of weeks; others create a longer, ongoing conversation.
“Long focus groups last for 3 to 3 1/2 hours and afterwards it is difficult to get people to do additional work because they are tired, it’s too late,” observes Xavier Charpentier, a co-founder of FreeThinking, the Publicis company behind the research. “It’s quite different when you are running a qualitative blog: You have people for 10 to 15 days, which is a huge amount of time for them to think about their answers and to challenge your own questions, which makes a big difference in the results. What people say when they talk together is more interesting than what they say when they talk to us. What they say peer to peer is more sincere and sometimes very intimate.”
That extended sharing of ideas can produce answers to questions a client might not have even considered.
“What they tend to do is they answer what is the real question in their minds; they just don’t answer the question you happen to ask in a focus group. It’s more penetrating,” says John Woodward, global planning director at Publicis Worldwide. “If you’re doing a focus group, you finish, you give people their money, and they leave. But when they step back, people have second thoughts, second opinions. On a blog they can continue that process and ask themselves deeper questions, and you get richer, deeper answers.”
Conventional focus groups have been criticized because one individual often dominates the discussion or participants tell the moderator what the marketer wants to hear. With their anonymity and emphasis on dialogue rather than directed discussion, digital groups may avoid some of those pitfalls.
“This is still relatively new, but it is beginning to mature into a very valid, legitimate alternative to other research techniques, particularly focus groups,” observes Jim Nail, CMO of Cymfony, a unit of TNS. “You always have to consider what level of bias there is in any research, but here it evolves into more of a community discussion. In focus groups you can have one strong personality with a loud mouth. In the blogosphere, with its anonymity, people will go right after him. This is a good antidote to a lot of the weaknesses in other kinds of research, qualitative or quantitative.”
FreeThinking’s work during the French election illustrates the process. The Publicis unit identified French lower-middle-class consumers as the most undecided group among voters. It worked with French quantitative research and consumer recruitment firm Panel on the Web to find 250 qualified French citizens to participate, with 50 of them assigned to each of five blogs FreeThinking built for the effort. Those bloggers agreed to participate at least twice a week for two weeks.
After a year, FreeThinking has 10 clients, including Nestle and Sanofi-Aventis. Charpentier says the agency representative — clearly identified — introduces the initial concept, interjects provocative ideas, adds new questions and knows when to step back. “You are not there to moderate a discussion between the participants and yourself, you are there to moderate a conversation among people, which is different. You have to be more present at the beginning and at the key moments of the blog and quite discreet the rest of the time,” he says.
Charpentier describes his methods as using the “weapons” — freethinking communities — that challenge the brand authority of marketers in a digital age. His company first identifies the relevant ideas surrounding an issue before starting a debate inside the communities of invited participants, who need a user ID and password and agree to a minimum level of participation.
As important as what is being said is how it is expressed. “Sometimes you define a problem with the client from an expert standpoint. What is interesting with the blog is that people really have time to think and they make you understand that maybe there is another way to tackle the problem,” says Charpentier.
FreeThinking client Pascal Lebailly, assistant vp, Nestle, who oversees the Maggi soup and seasons brand worldwide, says the online approach “is very, very useful, particularly when it’s about emotion. People are more relaxed and ready to speak when they are writing things by e-mail. It let’s you go deeper for insights. It allows the women, in our case, to express themselves without taboo. They are happy to discover they are not alone and that a lot of other women feel exactly the same.”
Clients must also change their way of thinking. “There is still sometimes a certain reluctance from some clients because it challenges their way to work, making them more active, and at the same time forcing them to let go, because that network conversation can appear as more confused than what you’re used to getting in focus groups,” says Charpentier. “But at the end of the day, they always get the ‘word of the consumer’ they didn’t expect.”
Nestle’s Lebailly concurs: “We have more honest, deep comments. It makes it easier to propose more relevant propositions.”
Zocalo, the Omnicom word-of-mouth marketing unit, creates closed communities for marketers’ best customers. Called Zocalo Squares, the blogs can be personalized to represent a brand. In addition to gleaning insights, the blogs drive advocacy as well.
Zocalo declined to share client specifics, but offers this account of a national restaurant chain, which has nearly 7,000 of its best customers in one of the agency’s communities. The brand asked for input about everything from existing and proposed menu items to service levels, quality, food and iced-tea flavors.
“Many insights that this brand had gotten from focus groups are now being gained from their own online community,” says Zocalo CEO Paul Rand. “Interestingly, even though the communities tend to be made up of a brand’s best customers, the dialogue is rarely, if ever, all positive. When consumers are asked for their opinions, they give them. The consumers recognize they have a real connection with the brand and their input is really listened to.”
There are inherent logistical advantages to using the Web to tap into consumer sentiment. Rand says Zocalo operates sites that are “dramatically less expensive than a series of focus groups,” where the total operating cost is under $200,000 per year.
Some wonder if by using closed online communities, marketers face less risk from a groundswell of backlash but don’t receive as much raw, unbiased input.
“It gives marketers a semblance of control with a password in a private community,” observes Pete Blackshaw, CMO of Nielsen’s BuzzMetrics. “If companies just put blogs out there, they face the possibility people will dogpile on them. It becomes more of an issue of whether brands are more comfortable teeing up issues in a closed environment with less risk.”
Adds Augustine Fou, svp, digital strategy, MRM Worldwide: “[New York Times columnist] David Pogue’s [recent] article on Web 2.0 mentions open blogs as the best way to go: lots of participants, openness and honesty, which earns the trust of readers and participants. A closed blog or forum does not do that.”
Fou’s MRM colleague, Vipin Mayar, evp, global director of data and analytics, counters that position: “On the other hand, it provides a way to invite your loyal customers to a place where their voice is heard. It can provide a certain sense of exclusivity and focus.”
Echoing others in the industry, Mayar adds: “I think you need both.”