Getting Below the Surface - Exposing Underlying Motivations

By Dave Kreimer, Principal of Next Step Consulting

My client concluded the debrief of the evening’s focus groups by saying, ”We didn’t hear what we wanted but we definitely understand why, and know what we need to do.” I took the remark as high praise and acknowledgment of the value of probing deeply for participants' underlying motivations. The study began as simple concept-testing research, introducing an innovative personal development product and evaluating a variety of packaging options. About halfway through the first group, the participants' lack of enthusiasm made it clear that my client had more serious concerns than how to package the product. The participants did not understand the product’s purpose or essential benefit, despite the seemingly clear demonstration and the explanation on the packaging. Understanding the reason for the disconnection became the primary research goal. The following techniques effectively moved the group to a deeper level of disclosure and exposed the participants' underlying motivations.

As you probably know, you cannot jump right into these kinds of issues. Participants need to progress gradually to the desired levels of honesty and openness. In the previously mentioned study, the first opportunity to probe deeply came after participants introduced themselves, explored the product, described their reactions and discussed their reasoning.

Because this group seemed sincerely interested in helping out, I chose to challenge some of the inconsistencies in their perceptions of the product. I began by stating in a general way, “some of you said “A” others said “B” but you were all looking at the same product. Can you tell me why you feel this way?” The discussion progressed to the point at which I could challenge two of the participants with representative points of view on their personal inconsistencies. The intention here is not to make them wrong, but to understand how an initial favorable impression shifted to a negative one. One very-effective method by which to confront without threatening is to “misunderstand” a participant’s point of view. People seem much more willing to correct my misconception than to clarify their own apparently conflicting statements. I successfully exposed the participants' reasons for confusion about the product by using these techniques. The next step was to explore potential solutions.

It is important to set the stage for this kind of exercise. Participants need to understand the marketing challenge and the kind of guidance that is most helpful. In some cases, the participants can serve the client best with brainstorm ideas. In other cases, you want to focus the feedback on a specific approach. In this study, participants agreed that the text on the packaging was the primary problem. I requested that participants identify the phrases on the back of the prototype that were misleading, as well as offer specific alternate phrases that would be helpful.

The techniques described, challenging the group, challenging individuals, misunderstanding, interpreting and then going deeper, proved to be an effective combination for this study. Although the product did not receive an enthusiastic response, the research was successful because my client clearly understood the nature of the participants' objections and received guidance regarding corrective actions.

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