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The Focus Group of One: The Curse of Personal Experience

There is no reason or rationale for formulating a worldview through the lens of your preferred technology

Most professional marketers know that it is rarely a good idea to use yourself as a focus group of one. While it is possible that your personal tastes and passions may be a perfect match for some segment of your target audience, it is very unlikely that it is a perfect match for your entire audience. This is such an obvious truth, it should go without saying.

But I guess it’s not obvious enough.

Over the past few months I’ve noticed more and more professional marketers citing personal examples during strategic discussions. This is understandable, because everyone now has a smartphone or a tablet or both, but it’s a frightening trend. Just the other day, I was working with a very large FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) client and the CMO said, “… I have that app. It sucks. I never use it … ever.” The app in question was a super-popular movie ticket app and the strategy session was about a program that would leverage moviegoers and movie enthusiasts.

Just for fun, I asked the CMO what about the app was off-putting. The answer blew me away, and I quote: “It always asks if it’s OK to use my location, can’t the stupid app figure out where I am and know it’s OK to use my location … the app sucks.”

So … I found myself in a room full of self-described “digital marketers,” most of whom didn’t know anything about the current implementation of privacy regulations. And, to make matters worse, those who did know, were scared to say a word because they didn’t want to correct their boss. Comical, but not uncommon.

That said, I get paid to make sure this stuff doesn’t happen, so I politely explained the difference between the iPhone’s permission request and the app’s capabilities. To everyone’s delight, the CMO accepted the explanation as fact, but then said: “It doesn’t matter if it’s the app or this iOS thing, people won’t use it … it sucks!” I’m sure you can imagine how much fun the rest of the meeting was.

A few years back, before iPhones, before Android phones, before iPads, CMOs knew what they didn’t know, and most of the great ones relied on market research and empirical data to set the stage for key strategic decisions. You could argue that the best marketers relied on their gut instincts, but I would push back and say that even the most emotional and artistic CMOs worked from a brand brief.

However, in the past 18 months or so, there has been a remarkable (and somewhat disturbing) trend toward the concept of “digital marketer,” as opposed to just plain “marketer,” who happens to use digital tools to help achieve marketing objectives.

While I’ve never heard a chief marketer tell me about what TV shows they personally like when describing a TV buy, I’ve yet to have a conversation about social media, apps or online advertising that didn’t include highly opinionated bias born of personal use of technology. This is intrinsically bad. The good news is that, from the Arab Spring, to Occupy Wall Street, to social networks, everyone is getting in the game. People – consumers and marketers alike – are really using technology to make meaning in their lives and there is a new level of understanding about how things like wireless networks and smart devices can change the world. The bad news is that, everyone has such an emotional connection with their technology that people – including marketers – are forgetting that everyone’s experience is different.

There is no reason or rationale for formulating a worldview through the lens of your preferred technology and projecting it upon your target audience. If it sounds stupid when you read the previous sentence; it’s even stupider when you enact it without realizing you’re doing it.

The curse of personal experience is something professional marketers have been successfully guarding against for years. Perhaps it’s time to redouble our efforts to prevent “focus groups of one” from having undue influence. A little vigilance might prevent marketers from making serious tactical mistakes, such as killing partnerships with wildly popular, highly targeted apps just because they think they suck.

More Stories By Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the host of Fox Television’s "Shelly Palmer Digital Living" television show about living and working in a digital world. He is Fox 5′s (WNYW-TV New York) Tech Expert and the host of United Stations Radio Network’s, MediaBytes, a daily syndicated radio report that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment.

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