Read this article at: Quirks Marketing Research Review

Evoke customer stories during video focus groups with four simple questions

Published in the October 2020 issue

Tom Neveril offers tips for adding the richness that stories bring to your video-based qualitative research.

Editor's note: Tom Neveril is founder of Storybrand Consulting, a Los Angeles research firm.

In the wake of the pandemic, marketers should invite their customers to video focus groups and ask them to share their stories. The popularity of Zoom, Skype, etc., has made this easier than ever. And people are eager to talk – and listen to others – about how life has changed.

Customer stories are valuable to marketers not only for their inspirational power but also because they reveal behavior and decision-making. When we understand what drives current behaviors, we can better predict what will drive future behaviors in the context of shopping and/or buying.

For example, years ago, a frequent business traveler shared this brief story with me:

“So, for many weeks I would always go to this hotel on Monday and leave on Wednesday. I got so tired of standing in line to check in. Then one day when I arrived, I left the car with the valet and when I walked inside, one of the staff greeted me, handed me a room key and said, ‘Your room is ready for you.’”

This story was one of several that helped guide the client’s development of an award-winning marketing campaign.

In this article, I’ll lay out a simple method for gathering stories like this in video focus groups. But first, let’s start with a useful definition of a story.

Stories have four elements. I believe all stories are built using plot, conflict, surprise and lesson. These elements are present in every story, from the grandest novels to the ancient myths to the story above.

Plot is a sequence of causally-related events. In the above example, the business traveler was made to wait in line repeatedly. This caused him to complain (I confirmed this later in the research session), which caused the hotel to give him personalized service.

We are all constantly “plotting” along as we have consumer experiences. Plots are important because they reveal needs, which are often different from what people say about their needs.

Secondly, stories have conflict. Conflict is created when satisfying one person’s needs appears to prevent the satisfaction of another person’s needs. (This also applies to groups of people.) In the example, the traveler needs to avoid waiting in line to be checked in. His need comes into conflict with the hotel staff’s need to use a standardized guest check-in procedure.

Conflict is important because it reveals the depth of our needs. For example, if streamlined check-in was a “must have” for the traveler, he may have switched to another hotel. And from the hotel staff’s perspective, if satisfying the traveler wasn’t a top priority, they may have continued to make him wait like the previous check-ins.

Stories must also contain the element of surprise. Surprise occurs when reality defies an expectation about life. When listening to a story, keep in mind that it’s not necessary that we in the audience are surprised. Rather, it must be plausible that either of the opposing people has been surprised.

A surprise or a plot twist is important because doing the unexpected shows creative problem-solving. This is true in all novels, movies, TV and even customer stories. Creativity is what makes all storytelling so engaging and powerful.

In the traveler’s story, the hotel didn’t speed up the check-in process by adding desks and staff. It took the creative, unconventional route of eliminating the desk check-in process altogether. When marketers demonstrate creative problem-solving, the halo of creativity enhances the brand’s appeal and memorability.

The fourth and final element is lesson, also called theme or moral. Lessons are essentially the larger implications from the story. Lessons are important because they show us better ways to live our lives.

A customer story lesson needs to be important to the storyteller but it doesn’t need to be philosophical or complex. For example, the simple lesson of the traveler’s story might be that personalized service makes business travel less stressful.

So how do you evoke insightful – and engaging – stories from participants in a video focus group? Ask these four questions.

Please tell me about a time when you were surprised during your experience with _____ (brand or product or category).

Rationale: The fast track to evoking good stories is by asking participants to recall moments of surprise. Surprises are markers for stories because they’re the easiest element to recall. We tend to remember those moments when we suddenly realize that we are – or are not – going to have our needs satisfied.

What burns them into our memory is the intensity of our emotion. The more important the need and the greater the conflict, the more intensely we feel the joy or disappointment of a surprise.

If the surprises you gather are about minutiae rather than epic struggles, that’s not a waste of time. For example, if our traveler was really surprised to see that one of the guest room amenities was a hair dryer, that’s unlikely to be a marker for a useful story. However, when people start sharing their surprising experiences, they often trigger recollections from other participants, which may be useful stories.

Please explain what happened including the actions you took throughout your experience.

Rationale: Again, it’s rare that a participant will recollect a fully-formed story after just being asked for surprises without further probing. If they do recall a surprise, explore the surrounding perceptions and actions. How and why did they come across the surprising event? You may uncover an emotional, important plot for a story.

If your participants are not able to think of any surprises, use this question to uncover plots during a specific part of their customer journey. Explore any emotional experiences or interactions with the brand. It might jar loose a surprise they’d forgotten about and perhaps a complete story.

Please explain a bit more about who was opposing you and what actions they took.

Rationale: Sometimes a focus group participant will only talk about their needs and the actions they took. To confirm the presence of a story, we need to understand the forces that opposed them.

Conflict or opposition always needs to be from others who have their own priorities. So, for example, if a guest can’t check into a hotel quickly because of a hurricane, that’s not helpful for marketers. But if the reason is that the customer service associate wants to maintain hotel security, that’s a strong antagonist.

Sometimes the opposition to a customer is simply the status quo established by the leading marketers within an industry. People often accept “the way it is” in some categories – until a brand uses creativity to innovate and disrupt it. Uber is a great example.

Have you learned any important lesson from your experience?

Rationale: Asking for lessons is often a helpful probe after people have already explained plot and conflict. Sometimes recalling lessons learned will help explain previous expectations and bring the surprise out of the story.

If the preceding questions haven’t netted any stories, asking about lessons learned – particularly “hard lessons” – can feel like a fresh angle to participants. Instead of requiring participants to jump to a point in the past, exploring lessons requires them to start from where they are today and figure out how they got there. They can retrace their steps back to those pivotal experiences. And every so often you’ll find a participant who can brilliantly articulate a lesson which might also be an insight for your business.

A few tips

Here are a few practical tips. First, remember to respect the technical capabilities of videoconferencing technology. The moderator should ask questions in round-robin style where each participant (maximum of six) speaks for a minute or so. This dynamic works well in videoconferencing, especially when the software features the speaker’s image prominently among the other participants (like Zoom).

Second, stack the deck in your favor. If possible, give your respondents an experiential homework assignment before the video focus group. The purpose of this is usually to stir up older memories by having new, analogous experiences.

For example, if your brand involves food preparation, ask your participants to make a dish or watch a cooking show. If you’re in the car business, ask them to take a test drive. The sights, sounds, products, scents and/or flavors of this new experience might trigger recall of past experiences. Of course, the experiential homework assignment could also provide new stories.

However, if it includes buying a product or service, consider reimbursing participants for a limited amount of the expense or time involved. This will build anticipation prior to the focus group. And it will help the participants hit the ground running as they start their storytelling session.