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Interesting things happen in focus groups.

No, we're not talking about the copious amounts of M&Ms that are ingested (although, from a purely scientific perspective, that's pretty interesting too). We're talking about what marketers can see, hear, and learn from this kind of research. Here are two examples ...

In a focus group for our client Polaroid (yes, we know that dates us a little ... okay, a lot; it dates us a lot), we were asking EMTs to look at a new instant camera product that had been designed for their use as first responders. It was a very exciting project for us; post-focus group, we would be developing videos to train police, firefighters, and EMTs on how instant imaging could help them provide a clearer picture of an accident scene to ER doctors. As the professional moderator guided the group, our client — who was in the secret viewing room behind the mirror with the M&Ms and all of us — became more and more agitated. She (the moderator) didn't understand some of the camera's functionality. He (the client) was desperate to correct her.

"Please," we pleaded, "It doesn't matter."

"No," we explained, "You can't go in there."

"Here," we cajoled, "Have some M&Ms."

Somehow we convinced him not to interrupt the group. But, as soon as it was over, he jumped out of his seat and rushed into the room to explain his beloved camera more accurately. It's good that EMTs are well-trained professionals who know how to keep their heads in a crisis. Because the client (an otherwise wonderful and super-cool guy) looked and sounded like someone on the verge of a breakdown.

Lesson learned? It might be better to dissuade the client from attending the focus group. Videotape it instead and let him or her watch it at their leisure. Just bring along some M&Ms.

Another memorable focus group was scheduled to help us develop a campaign for a regional HMO's new Medicaid product. Our target audience comprised single mothers, and as we heard their stories, we realized just how much they cared about providing the best healthcare for their families and just how challenging their lives were.

We were munching on M&Ms and deciding what to order for lunch when one of the moms made a point about wanting to have a choice about what medical facility she brought her kids to.

"I won't go to Bridgeport," she said. "I'll only go to Yale New Haven. They'll let you die at Bridgeport. One time, when I got shot, they were taking me to Bridgeport and I said, 'Hell no. I'm going to Yale New Haven ..."

Say what?

Suddenly our lunch options and the M&Ms seemed of very little importance.

Besides a serious wake-up call with regard to our own trials and tribulations (as in, never complain about a materials deadline again), that focus group gave us a chance to pull out a valuable bit of insight that informed all of our creative going forward. These women were all single moms, and we showed them several executions that included mothers with children. But, they responded best to images and ads that showed two-parent families. Despite their own difficult situations, they wanted to believe in traditional happy endings. And, they wanted to get their families' health insurance from a company that did too.

Lesson learned? The audience knows best. Be open to solutions that run counter to what you assumed.

And make sure you focus — on more than the M&Ms.

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