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Creative Testing

Marlene Brock
Executive VP

Whether you are developing a new creative campaign, evolving your brand identity, or gathering data on an existing campaign, creative focus groups are an essential way to find out how your customers are likely to respond to your messaging and materials. While less structured than quantitative research, focus groups are the best way to understand resonance, motivational power, and depth of feeling in response to creative concepts. This kind of knowledge is indispensable in shaping a successful campaign. The advantage is that testing provides these insights before you launch, and that makes all the difference in the world.

The Basics
In most cases, three groups are needed for each major audience segment, with each group involving a different sub-segment: traditional age undergraduate prospects from three primary feeder areas, for example. With one or two groups, you may miss important perspectives, yet a fourth usually doesn’t give you new information, just more of the same. So three is our recommended number to have confidence in the breadth and validity of feedback obtained, and still be cost effective.

For student testing, each group should involve 8-12 participants. You’ll need to schedule and confirm (multiple times) 3-4 extras since no-shows are common, particularly among teenagers. It’s best to get help from admissions, which usually has relationships with high school counselors, to identity potential participants. We often ask counselors at feeder high schools to post sign-up sheets in libraries and hallways, offering cash incentives for participants.

On-site focus groups are, by far, the most reliable methodology, but they’re costly and difficult to arrange given our security-conscious society. When in-person groups are not feasible, online focus groups using WebEx or GoToMeeting type software make a good alternative. However, limit online groups to 8-10 participants to allow adequate input from each individual.

Regardless of format, you’ll need to pre-qualify participants based the audience profile you want to attract, which may or may not be the same as your current student mix. Careful pre-screening with phone interviews will determine the quality of data. Among high-school prospects, for example, there can be pronounced differences in the way urban students respond to creative stimuli versus rural students. The same is true for high-performing versus average students; large-school versus small-school students; and for students with high socio-economic status versus low.  If you’re after high performers, don’t test average students.

In addition, if participants know what institution is sponsoring the research, responses are likely to be biased. For that reason, take every step necessary to ensure the groups are conducted blind, without participants knowing until afterward who is asking the questions.

Focus groups should be 60-90 minutes long, and should be led by an experienced facilitator with at least one assistant to take care of forms, refreshments, and note-taking. Videotaping is helpful and, given access to high-def videocams, quite easy.  But it’s not critical. You’ll find few who want to watch entire recorded sessions or transcribe them. Instead, an experienced note-taker capturing real-time quotes as well as notes on body language and overall group response is more practical.

What to Test
Creative focus groups should not explore what your institution says or stands for, but should focus on how to best tell your brand story so that it catches attention, resonates, and motivates audiences to action.We recommend developing three creative explorations just for testing – mounted art boards with imagery, headline, and body copy that convey the brand promise and personality differently. They are similar to full-page ads that might be used in marketing campaign presentations, for example. It will require all of the creative skills your team can bring to bear to stay true to your brand strategy while presenting differences in attitude, headline style, photo style, body copy length and voice, color use, typography, and other factors. To the extent possible, the mock-ups should push creative boundaries to identify audience resonance points and limits.

The testing boards should keep your logo and signature hidden so that audiences do not know what institution they represent. By assessing responses to the different explorations, you can identify which approach provides the optimum combination of the following attributes:

  1. Believability
  2. Resonance
  3. Stickiness
  4. Motivational Power

Once the creative boards have been presented, messaging resonance and motivational power can be tested using concept statements that articulate key messages in a standardized feature-benefit-outcome format. These should be straightforward value propositions rather than marketing language so that you test the concept itself rather than the artistic expression of it. Again, participants should not know the institution the statements are intended to describe.

What to Ask
A key factor in focus group testing is to remember that they should not become “popularity contests” in which participants “vote” on which version they like best. While all focus group participants volunteer such information unasked, the analysis should discount such likes and dislikes to the extent possible.

Rather than asking participants to choose among the explorations being presented, each testing material should be treated on its own merits. Questions should be designed to evoke honest responses to the following crucial questions:

  • What is each approach conveying to them?
  • Which approaches can they identify with? Why?
  • How does each approach make them feel?
  • Which approach best catches their attention? Why?
  • Which approach would motivate them to find out more?

Creative focus groups cannot give you definitive answers, as much as you may want them. If well designed, however, they will give you a good read on how your customers will react to different creative approaches, and will allow you to fine-tune your messaging and materials as you work your way through the creative decision-making process.

If you would like to learn more insider tips and tricks for how to prepare and conduct great focus group research, sign up for the March 10 KnowledgeBuilder, “Creative Campaign Testing: Start to Finish.”

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