Don't test written content in focus groups

It has never been so important for brands to write clearly and effectively to their customers, yet the techniques most research agencies use to test written communications have not kept up with the times.

Many clients still use focus groups, because that is how they have always tested advertising. 

I love focus groups, but here are three reasons why we need to test written communications such as brochures, websites and correspondence individually, not in groups.

Key takeout

Written communications need to be

  • empowering, and
  • easy to understand.

To understand empowerment, researchers need to talk to people one-on-one. To assess ease of use, researchers need to talk to people one on one.  Therefore, focus groups are the wrong method for this kind of research.

‘Digital disruptions have changed the way we communicate with each other—and especially how brands communicate with consumers. Companies can no longer hide behind a well-constructed marketing campaign and a few key spokespeople.’ - Forbes 

1.We need to test how empowering these communications are, not just how persuasive.

The role of written communications is to make the customer journey easy for customer and organisation alike. One common aim is to empower customers to be self-sufficient - for example to log on to digital channels to solve a problem rather than call a call centre. By 'empower', I mean give customers the tools and resources to help them make better decisions.

Take Charities as an example. Many of us receive many similar charity appeals every month that have long ago failed to 'talk' to us as people - they typically talk about people but not to us. Charities are trying to persuade, when I think they should be trying to empower. Empowerment means giving individuals skills, knowledge and access, so the research needs to be with individuals not with groups.

2. People process moving visuals differently from the way they process the written word.

Everyone who sees a TV ad or hears a radio ad has to process the information in the same way in a short period of time. Moderators in focus groups can present the ad to the group, knowing everyone will see and hear it at the same time. The moderator therefore knows when to start asking questions about it. In contrast, there are many ways to read and use the information in websites, Fact Sheets, posters and brochures. People can skim them, or read them quickly or carefully, and they can re-read them. That can mean that the focus group moderator may start the discussion when some people are only halfway through reading while others have started to re-read. So what is being tested under those circumstances?

3. Researchers need to write well and know how language works.

In some organisations, responsibility for written communications does not lie with communications professionals or creative agencies, it is the province of  in-house staff members - such as lawyers - who lack relevant training in how to write. There is no point in the researcher debriefing the client with a message to ‘use plain English’ or ‘write it more clearly’ when the person who wrote it thinks that it is already clear and plain. The researcher needs to give explicit instructions on which words to use, how to layout the page, and when to use diagrams and tables and when not to, for example. This kind of insight comes from observing individuals use the material.

What to do instead

  • Use individual interviews when you test written communications. These can be face to face, via webcam, or using an online qual platform.
  • Use researchers who know how language works, so they can give actionable advice on how to communicate more effectively.
  • Use researchers who recognise that written communications are different from TV ads.

We can advise you

We are experienced researchers and insights professionals, who know how to write.  Sue Bell  trained in Linguistics, Jane Gregory has a degree in literature and Suzanne Burdon is also a published author.

Subscribe to our newsletter for more thought leadership on qualitative research


Tags: Linguistics, focus groups, Disclosure, Document Design, Consumer testing