creative testing Listening

Good Marketing Begins with Listening

One thing has remained constant in my career: The target audience always holds the answers and insights that are necessary for me to do my job as a marketer. To tap into those insights, listening is an essential activity.

In my blog posts and conference presentations I talk a lot about how social media channels are amazing listening platforms. Although most organizations simply use them to push out content, if used properly, they can give you direct access to insights, opinions and preferences of your brand constituents. That is something special!

I am continually reminded of the importance of listening and the risks inherent in not listening. One quick example from my own experience: This summer my firm quickly developed a campaign to launch a new emergency department for a hospital in a very rural market. The deadlines were extremely tight and there was no time for doing one-on-one interviews or focus groups with consumers in the market, let alone do creative testing once marketing concepts were developed. So we produced the campaign concepts; the clients chose the one that they found to be most compelling; and we launched it. At no point was there input from the target audience/community members.

We all loved the campaign. It treated a very serious subject with sophistication and whimsy. Graphically, it was iconic and memorable. However, within a few days of the campaign launch we learned that older residents in this rural market did not understand some of the headlines. If we had taken the time to do one evening of creative testing with the target audience we would have learned that particular nuance and quickly made tweaks to the headlines. (As it was, we made tweaks on the fly as the campaign was in the market.) This was another helpful reminder that tapping into consumer insights is a must. Even when deadlines are tight and budgets are slim, it is worth taking one night to do consumer intercepts or focus groups to gauge the effectiveness of the concepts we’re/you’re developing.

Yes, it can be expensive to do creative testing or brand perception focus groups as part of a creative development process, but these things can also be done inexpensively. Once, when I needed to test some ad concepts prior to a meeting with a hospital client, a colleague and I took a handful of $5 bills and stood in front of a coffee shop in Boston offering to pay people $5 for 5 minutes of their time reviewing ads. My colleague recorded the interviews on a video camera as I quickly shared each of the ads with patrons of the coffee shop and other people who just happened to pass by. Two hours later we had responses from 20 consumers and were able to share those insights with the client – and with our creative team. With the intercepts, we were trying to tap into the consumer’s immediate, gut reaction to the ads, and that’s exactly what we got. It cost us $100 and two hours of our time; time and money well spent. Later we went back and did more exhaustive research.

A Case in Point: Over the last six months my team and I have been working on a new branded service line campaign for a health system in New England. It has been an incredible process to be a part of. We started with focus groups in the market, focusing on specific towns within the organization’s primary service area. As you might expect, opinions of the health system vary depending on what town people live in.  Some of that is due to socio-economic factors, some is related to varying levels of familiarity with the hospital, and some of it is due to the relative proximity to other hospitals.

Don’t Forget the Internal Audience(s): We also did internal focus groups with employees of the health system to tap into their perceptions of the organization. This is so important given that these are the individuals who deliver on the brand promise, day-in and day-out. These focus groups included groups of nurses, clerical and administrative staff, physicians, senior leadership, Board members and more. Finally, we conducted a focus group that included community leaders and influentials.

Quantitative Analysis: Once we completed the focus groups we tested what we had learned through a quantitative brand perception study. The study included 500 healthcare decision-makers, segmented into 4 distinct geographic zones within the organization’s primary service area. The findings from the quantitative survey confirmed what we had learned in the qualitative portion of the assessment and supplied additional detail that would be helpful as we began development of the branded service line marketing program.

Creative Strategy: The next step was to take what we learned and develop a creative strategy that would serve as the roadmap for the creative team as they worked on potential campaign concepts. We developed 8 to 10 “approaches” or what we call “shallow holes.” Before these were too advanced, we reviewed them internally, eliminating a few, and narrowed the options down to the five that we felt were most on strategy. We then presented those five concepts to our client who then helped us narrow the field to three finalists.

Creative Testing: The three final campaign approaches were then developed more fully and presented to focus groups of female healthcare consumers from specific towns within the organization’s primary service area. (We use a propriety creative testing methodology that has served us well over the years. It avoids many of the pitfalls of typical focus group dynamics.) We also shared the campaign approaches through focus groups with hospital employees. In the end, one campaign emerged as the clear winner, although there was a strong second place contender.

Presenting to Leadership: The next step was to share the final campaign approaches and the creative testing results with the organization’s senior leadership team. I find that it is always best to present to leadership after you’ve tested the creative with the target audience. This takes a lot of the subjectivity out of the conversation. You already have in hand the opinions of the people who really matter. And, you can share nuances that you learned through the creative testing process that you will use to enhance the creative and make it even more impactful.

Consensus: Using this process, we gained consensus on the creative approach to the branded service line campaign. We included important brand constituents throughout the process; and we eliminated much of the subjectivity that can creep its way into the creative development process. Most importantly, we have integrated insights gathered from our key audiences that should make our campaign more effective!

And it all started with listening. We entered this process with a desire to gain insights from our various brand constituent groups. That desire has been present every step of the way. Once the campaign is launched, we will need to keep listening, measure responses to the marketing in various channels, and make adjustments where needed. That feedback loop is essential.

So the next time your organization is preparing to develop some new marketing initiative, ask your team to detail the ways in which they plan to listen to the target audience(s) and incorporate their feedback into your work.

One note of caution: I love the idea of Patient and Family Advisory Councils, but you should be careful not to confuse them with the audience you are trying to reach. Their feedback is valuable, but they are an internal audience and at some point they become professional consultants and advisors, rather than detached consumers. You need to supplement their feedback with input from those detached consumers, along with the opinions and perspectives of internal customers.

1 comment on “Good Marketing Begins with Listening

  1. I always recommend to clients that they create a listening dashboard. As you say, it can be expensive, but it’s a vital part of any social media strategy. Not only can it assist you in responding and resolving issues in real time, but it also provides deeper insights into what your audience needs.

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