Last week I moderated an in-person Millennial shopper panel that was part of an annual day-and-a-half advisory board meeting for my client, a food marketer, and a dozen of their key customers from around the country. What made the session unique was that everyone was in the room together—no one-way mirror, just a group of shoppers talking directly in front of the people whose stores they frequent and whose products they buy.
As I’ve done before with this approach, I ran it as a talk show. (Full disclosure: I wanted to be a talk-show host as a kid…okay, a game-show host, but they’re similar, sort of…) In line with the presentation Dina Shulman and I made at the 2017 QRCA Annual Conference on what marketing researchers can learn from Broadway and Hollywood, the shoppers “auditioned” for the show by not only answering questions but also submitting selfie-videos about a related topic to test their “stage-worthiness”: comfort sharing their opinions, articulateness, and a gut feeling we glean about how engaging a participant they would be—the same qualities we seek when running traditional focus groups.
I came up with a playful name for the show to set an informal tone that fit the channel and gave the discussion a sense of direction (“On today’s [show], we’re talking with Millennial shoppers about [topic redacted].”) The panelists and I waited in a “green room,” replete with snacks and drinks, before we went on stage. We had a walk-on song/theme music as we entered, and I tongue-in-cheekedly (I know, that’s not usually an adverb) held up an “Applause!” sign to build excitement in the room, as recording of live shows usually do. I had cut my discussion guide into sections and taped them onto the large index cards that hosts use, and I turned to the studio audience at the end for Q&A.
This approach doesn’t feel like a traditional focus group, which can be stale and staid for people on both sides of the glass. Instead it creates a unique dynamic with a palpable energy reverberating not only among the participants but also with the observers, to the benefit of everyone involved.
- It gives clients the ability to see consumers (or shoppers) up close without the barrier of a one-way mirror. They’re more engaged in the discussion and have a richer experience and more fun. They’re still able to munch on M&M’s and other snacks, but they’re not able to be on their phones, answer emails or make fun of participants—and that makes things better for all of us.
- It makes the consumers’/shoppers’ role in the research process more tangible for them. They feel more connected with the brands and products they’re discussing, seeing that the people observing them—the decision-makers for these brands and products—truly care about what they have to say. They feel heard. Said one participant, “It’s less mysterious this way. I’m more comfortable knowing who I’m talking to.”
- It liberates me to engage simultaneously with both audiences I need to serve as a researcher. And, I learn more and have even more fun in the process.
Societally we’re in a tug of war of countervailing forces: one erecting barriers and operating in darkness, the other craving transparency and connection. Research lends itself to the latter. Though the talk show approach may not be appropriate for all projects or researchers, I will continue to encourage my clients to come out from behind the glass into the light of direct contact with the people they’re trying to understand better.
Maybe there’s a greater lesson for all of us.