Originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera and the Longmont Daily Times-Call.

One of my favorite musicals is 1776.

I love the characters, the costumes, the carrying on, the songs and especially the lyrics.

Questions from one song stick in my mind – “Is anybody listening? Is anybody there? Does anybody see what I see?” Those questions are as compelling today as they were when our forefathers (and foremothers) were preaching revolution. I’m as concerned as they were that people just aren’t listening.

To communicate effectively, you have to listen effectively. Communicating isn’t only about what you want to say. It’s also about what others want to hear. The best way to be sure people are hearing what you want them to hear is to spend time listening.

We’re all familiar with “listening tours” that political candidates undertake to find out what’s on the minds of their constituents. Most of those tours are photo opportunities, but the concept is good. Focus groups are a better way to determine what people are thinking and may be saying about you and your business.

I’ve been doing a lot of focus groups lately. In the process, I’ve found many people really don’t understand the function of focus groups in shaping or redirecting business marketing and communications.

Simply put, focus groups are a strategic and interactive way to find out what others think about your business, your products, your marketing, your public image, etc. It’s not the same as just going out and randomly asking people for their input. Focus groups employ methodologies that enable professional facilitators to draw critical pieces of information from target groups of individuals. Done properly, focus groups provide clear views of how current and potential clients/customers view you. Done poorly, focus groups will only validate self-generated beliefs and assumptions.

What makes the difference? Planning, expertise, strategy and professional facilitation. Focus groups are not do-it-yourself projects. Individuals directly involved with a business will reap the benefits, but they are the worst people to conduct the exercise. Focus group participants are encouraged to give unvarnished opinions. That’s difficult to do when they know they’re talking directly with the focus group sponsor. The participants won’t want to feel they’re being judged or that they may upset the group sponsor with their opinions. Instead of being candid, the participants may hold back or say what they think the sponsor would like to hear. That’s not what you want from a focus group. You want to hear the good and the bad so you and your business can capitalize upon the good and eliminate the bad.

One focus group isn’t enough to do the job properly. Two or three different groups held at different times on the same subjects will make sure that perceptions and feelings are consistent throughout target audiences. It is important that each focus comprised of the “right” participants. “Right” is defined by making sure participants have knowledge of what you want to talk about – your business, marketing plans, products and competition. Questions or surveys put before each group have to be balanced to avoid leading the participants to an answer. Finally, an outside facilitator should have the task of keeping the focus group on course without leading discussions or biasing outcomes. As Winston Churchill once said, “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.”

Listening doesn’t end when focus groups go home. The opinions and suggestions they leave behind have to be tabulated, analyzed and understood. Then the focus group sponsor can begin wrapping the outcomes into more effective communications strategies. Only then will you know that you’re not just talking. You’re also listening.

Stacy Cornay is the owner of Communication Concepts Public Relations & Advertising. 
Visit www.comm-concepts.com or call 303-651-6612.

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