This post is one in a series from a presentation on Creative Slip-Ups: The 11 Most Common Mistakes in Brainstorming. The Introduction to the series is here.
The slip-up: Thinking the target audience is simply a statistic.
Here’s an embarrassing true story. Well before I was a creative director, I was an account supervisor on one of our agency’s largest clients. A new account director joined just as we were handed a new and sizable assignment. She called a strategy meeting among our core group in a few day’s time. To prepare, each team member dug through volumes of research that the client had sent to our offices. By the time we walked into the meeting, I thought we had a good handle on the target audience.
The new account director’s first question to me was: “So, what’s her name?” I froze. I knew all the numbers. I knew the data. I even could compare and contrast the numbers with the data. “I don’t know,” I said, stupidly. “She’s a stereotype.”
To this day, I’m still surprised I didn’t get a tongue-lashing. Obviously, this lesson has been seared into my brain for the rest of my life. There are lots of opinions on what makes an idea brilliant: being communicated, taking risks, changing the status quo. To me, an idea is brilliant because it engages a flesh-and-blood, real-life human being.
The solution: Empathize with your audience.
It’s one thing to learn about the target audience from reading research and reports. But the best way to learn about your audience is to go out and meet them, face-to-face.
Yes, you can spend lots of money on a professional organization to conduct a focus group. Or, you can simply invite together a bunch of people who meet the criteria of the target audience and listen to them talk.
There a few ground rules:
- You do not talk. You ask questions, and more so, you listen.
- Whatever they believe is true to them. Your opinions are irrelevant and should never enter the conversation.
- You must be 100% neutral. At no point do you judge their answers as anything less than the truth. Even if you go to the point of showing them ideas, do not take their opinions personally. If you can’t trust yourself to be neutral, hire a professional facilitator.
- Keep the conversation going by asking: “Why is that important to you?”
- Record the audience’s conversation and reaction on video if you like, but only with their approval.
- Put it in writing that their opinions are wholly confidential.
(I prefer to hide my team Mad Men-style behind a one-way glass. But I’ve also had them sit in the room with the audience and silently take notes. Acknowledge to your audience that these additional people are there to learn, and as such, will be taking notes and not making any judgments.)
Keep the meeting to no more than an hour. Serve nice food and wine, and if possible, pay for their services and opinions.
There are other rules. Go here for a great post by Webcredible on how to run a focus group, including some good tips.
If you want even more detail, try this post – from Fieldstone Alliance – on conducting focus groups.
Where focus groups remove people from their environment, a field trip is a way for you to visit people being most natural and honest.
Some of the fondest memories in my career are the days when I went and talked to people. I spent a day on a crew line at McDonald’s. I’ve talked to people on factory floors. I spent a day with the call center staff for MasterCard. I’ve interviewed nurses in cancer wards and school children about ice cream. I’ve asked people about how they shine their shoes, wash their hair, and mop the floor.
Some other general points about talking with people.
- Don’t surprise people. Some previous introduction is always helpful. I prefer to get someone they know to introduce me.
- Some people like to think about the questions in advance, but don’t give them too much time to prepare answers as they may not be wholly honest.
- Ask if it’s OK to ask questions. Again, you might consider giving people some questions beforehand so people have a chance to consider their answers. But beware, preparation may take away from impromptu comments which might be rich with insights.
- Be conversational, but at the same time, don’t take up too much time. Be respectful and considerate.
- Take nothing personally. And, be ready to deal with emotions.
- With their permission, take pictures – not necessarily of them, but of the situation and environment.
- Invite them to brainstorm with you.
- If you’re not a good listener, stay home. Send someone who is.
Here’s a longer post of mine on field trips for more detail.
This post has some good tips and advice on organizing a field trip, although it was written by Camp Silos for teachers and student leaders.
Here are some good posts on listening.
From MindTools.com, entitled Active Listening.
Also, a recent post of my own: Listening to Understand vs. Listening to Reply
We named the husband and wife who drank boxed wine “Bruce and Sheila.” The woman who was a fitness fanatic was named “Tess.” “Helene” represented the women in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney who had no qualms about Botox. “Hank” loved auto supply stores.
Naming the person reinforces the concept that your ideas need to resonate with an actual person. It’s a great ice-breaker for the brainstorm. You can spend the first 10-15 minutes coming up with realistic and descriptive names. It’s also good homework for people to bring 3-5 names that they believe best represents the audience.
If you can, use the name during the pitch. Find one photograph which represents “Margo” or “Howard” or “Chandler.”
You’ll know you’re on to something when your client continues to use this name after the meeting, especially when they use it when they visit your competition for the business.
Any other thoughts on ways to meet and talk to the target audiences?
Previous slip-up: Using shallow research to make strategic decisions.