How To Use Your Audience As A Focus Group

When you work for yourself it can be a lonely existence. Not just from the point of view that the only person to share a cup of tea with is the dog, but also because there is no one there to sense check what you’re doing. No one for you to turn to and ask ‘what do you think of this?’.

But actually, we can use this to our advantage. When you’re in an office or in a marketing department, it’s easy just to ask the opinions of those around you and make decisions based on those. You get a lot of “I think people will like [insert thing here]”, which leads to marketing strategies based on the opinions of the people in the room. All marketers know they should survey audiences and base strategy around that, but it doesn’t always (read: usually) happen.

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For us as small businesses plugging away on our own, the only people we can ask is our audience. And this puts us in such a strong position – we are getting our information directly from the people that will buy our product, and basing our product development, pricing and strategy around what they want. Plus, because we have small personal brands, we can do all of this for free.

But how do you go about surveying your audience in a way that is true to you and doesn’t feel uncomfortable? Here are my tips for using your audience as a focus group.

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Remember it’s not unprofessional

This is something I come up against with the people I talk to about focus grouping your audience: “but won’t I seem like I don’t know what I‘m doing?” There does sometimes seem to be a reticence around asking the opinions of customers, as if it’s somehow letting a façade slip or it will put people off. Just remember that the biggest companies in the world ask feedback from their customers all the time. Think about when you buy something online – do you get follow up emails asking how they did, or asking you to review a product? It’s all asking for feedback.

Don’t worry about putting off your customers either. People love to air their thoughts and give advice to others – as humans, we love to feel like we’re helping someone out. Your customers will jump at the chance to feel more invested in you and your business, and any that don’t like it clearly don’t buy into you and are not your customer.

Rather than focus on any awkward feelings you have, instead think about how this is going to enable you to serve your customers better, and ultimately, make more sales.

Bowl of maple leaves on a tablecloth

Sound like you

In order to make surveying your audience feel more authentic, you have to think about the delivery. Or rather, not over-think the delivery. Often when we do things in our business we’re not entirely comfortable with, we revert to formality. We’ve always been taught the way we should speak in a “professional” capacity, and even though on our blog and in person we don’t talk like that, it becomes our fall back position when we’re unsure. Think about when you see people who are new to social media: they’re not quite comfortable with it and communicate a bit like a bank. This is what we’re trying to avoid.

When you’re asking for feedback, don’t forget the way you speak. If the tone of your business is quite casual, carry that through – something along the lines of “hey guys, I’m looking at some new product ideas for next year and it would be so awesome if you’d take a look a tell me what you think”. Keep your tone consistent through every part of the survey, including the questions.

Still not sure? Write out what you want to say and compare it to other pieces of content you think really reflect you – maybe it’s your About page or a blog post. How do the two compare? What words and feelings come across in the writing you love, and how can you inject that into your feedback?

How To Use Your Audience As A Focus Group - marketing advice for creative business, marketing tips, how to survey your customers, market research for small businesses

Do it in the right place

The next thing to decide is where you’re going to ask for feedback. And this really depends on the sort of feedback you’re looking for – is it a quick question or are you basing strategy on this? Below I’ve laid out a few options:

  • Instagram Stories/Twitter – for more instant, smaller pieces of informal feedback I use Instagram Stories mostly, although Twitter can also be effective. The Poll function on both platforms makes it really easy for you to get straight forward feedback. For example, I asked whether March or April is better for a workshop, and got a clear answer in a few hours.
  • Instagram captions – I use my captions a lot for more qualitative feedback, or things that may take a bit more thought, but still keeping it quite informal. In captions I ask things like, ‘what would you like to see more of on the blog?’, or, ‘what would you look for in a workshop?’. They are single questions on one topic but require the audience to think a bit.
  • Surveys – if you are looking for a lot of information, or more formal feedback to base key decisions on, then I would use a survey. They enable you to ask a series of questions, you can process the data more easily and often the participants will take their answers more seriously than in a throwaway Instagram comment. It’s important to keep your survey short (around 10 questions max) and easy (lots of multiple choice) or people just won’t fill them in. You’re asking your audience to interrupt what they’re doing for a survey, so you’re likely to get fewer responses that to an Instagram Stories poll. However, the people that do fill it in will be your biggest fans, so the data will be more powerful.

Tea on a pile of books on a wooden floor

Don’t forget to exchange value

All online relationships are an exchange of value, whether that’s goods for money, or quality content for attention. And for us, the scales need to always be tipped in favour of our audience in order to keep them coming back. So when asking for favours like this, you need to have built up enough goodwill by being valuable to your audience, and continue to provide it after you’ve got what you want. We need to avoid asking questions every five minutes, or only popping up on Twitter when you want something.

How you define value depends on your business – maybe it’s consistently providing great quality blog content, or maybe it’s offering a 10% discount to people who take your survey. But either way, your audience have to feel motivated to help you by some kind of value.

And lastly, act upon your feedback! Imagine taking the time to fill out someone’s survey and then they go and do the opposite thing anyway. You’d lose a lot of respect for them, and probably would stop buying from them. Sometimes your customers will tell you something that surprises you, that goes against a plan you really liked. It’s tempting to do it anyway, but if you make a product they told you they hated, then obviously they’re not going to buy it. Look at your feedback critically (someone saying they’d pay £1000 for something is different to them actually paying it) but it is invaluable in getting into the mind of your customer and understanding what drives their decision-making.

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How To Use Your Audience As A Focus Group - marketing advice for creative business, marketing tips, how to survey your customers, market research for small businesses