July 21, 2014


If you watch Hollywood movies, then the ending you saw was most likely a result of choices made by a focus group. Originally, focus groups were used within communication studies to explore the effects of film and television. Group processes can help researchers determine and clarify participant views more easily than other research techniques. As a result, this strategy has been adapted far beyond Hollywood for use in many other businesses, including the publishing

What are focus groups?

A focus group is composed of up to a dozen people recruited from the target market segment. The moderator asks questions and leads the direction of discussion, often with a pre-planned discussion guide. She or he ensures that all group members contribute and avoids letting one participant's opinions

To arrive at a reliable conclusion, you need at least three focus groups. Why three? If two groups contradict each other, the third will point out the mode.
The discussion guide will explore the group members’ opinions and attitudes towards a given subject. This can be a product, concept, advertisement, process, or any other subject of interest to your publishing house. In professional facilities, focus groups are usually recorded on audio and video machines through one-way mirrors. In my experience, the audio and video recordings often serve as back-up resources because the moderator and other observers will generate a report on the discussion. The implication here is that so long as there is a moderator, a transcriber, and observers, you can have a successful focus group under a banyan tree, in a classroom, or in a living room... without the use of technology and a research facility.

Focus groups are not just face-to-face. Telephone conferences and online groups present opportunities to talk as a group about a new product or service while eliminating inhibitions that exist in a personal setting. Of course, there are guidelines as to when to use these alternative group processes. The strength of the focus group methodology is in its probing. The researcher or facilitator can observe how the individual subconscious reveals itself and how group cultural variables affect individual decision making. However, the depth of the probing depends on the skills of the facilitator.

The moderator must be capable of developing rapport with the group and prompting a lively discussion that stays on track. An independent, impartial moderator is key. In looking for someone to lead the group, it is best to hire an external candidate to ensure objectivity. If internal, select an employee with a reputation as a good meeting leader.

The moderator should follow a standard focus group sequence. Steps to include:
  • An introduction by moderator of subject matter and ground rules.
  • Providing disclosures pertaining to confidentiality of opinions and audio/video recording and asking if there are any objections.
  • A self-introduction of group members.
  • A time to address the issues.
  • A wrap up. The moderator should thank the participants and tell them how the data will be processed.

There must be the utmost respect for the thoughts and concerns of the participants. Additional things to consider include provision of meals and transportation.

When to use focus groups?

Focus groups are a marketing tool. When the book market is stagnant or publishing initial financial outlays are huge, then there might be significant return on investment on focus groups. Focus groups do take time, effort and resources, so it is best to use them correctly. This methodology works well when the subject or message is sensory and requires vision, touch or smell. However, if your information is quantitative, complex or abstract, then it is best to use other types of surveys.

Focus groups are good for illustrated publications such as history books, children’s Sunday school materials, and cookbooks.

They are also helpful when applied to web sites, print, radio or television ads, and publication layouts. Focus groups also work well when group chatter and consultations may affect purchases. Examples of these include discussions on customer loyalty programs and sales promotions.

While research can be surprising at times, it can help you get on the right track. Focus groups can uncover new perspectives and sensitivities that your marketing staff might have easily missed. For example, Scribner tested two versions of a cover for Faye McDonald Smith’s Flight of the Blackbird before it was printed.

Surprisingly enough, the cover with a portrait of a family beat out a cover with a blackbird in flight in focus group sessions. Furthermore, peer consultation in focus groups can tell you how the important second and third purchase might be catalyzed or inhibited.

New York Times business writer Daniel Gross cautions that research indicates that most of the thoughts and feelings that influence human behavior occur in the unconscious mind.
"The primary function of focus groups is often to validate the sellers’ own beliefs about their product," he says. This can be avoided by using placebo products and presenting several types of messages, including contradictory statements.

Cultural variables

By its very nature as an assemblage, qualitative research from focus groups is more sensitive to cultural variables.

In Japan, where formal communication is the norm, focus group participants must first be recruited face-to-face. Then they receive a follow-up phone call. Finally, they are sent an informational e-mail. This process differs greatly from focus groups in the US where enlistment is largely done by phone.

Compared to people in the U.S., in many Asian countries people are somewhat reserved and tend to keep their opinions to themselves. The moderator has to be adept at encouraging participation and putting the members at ease. In such cases, the warm-up period is often longer.

In the U.S., focus groups are normally completed in two hours, but in France, the process may last up to four. European focus groups often prefer to dig deep into the underlying causes of behavior on a psychological level, and are often moderated by trained psychologists. In contrast, moderators in the U.S. tend to be communications professionals.

In Thailand and India, focus groups are separated by gender, age, and social class.

In the U.S., focus groups within the Hispanic population must take into account differences in the country of origin of the participants. A mixed group might come up with different results than a country-specific group.

Regardless of where you are holding your focus groups, take note of cultural variables that affect group interaction. Knowing that group dynamics differ from country to country means that it is best to hire a local moderator and recruiter.

Holding your own focus groups

A good gauge as to whether you should embark on a focus group methodology is to answer the following questions.  If you answer yes to at least two questions, then you might want to consider using focus groups.
  • Is my investment large enough on a publication that increased assurance of sales is necessary?
  • Will my new publication affect the reputation of the company and other sales?
  • Am I going into unknown territory? Examples might include e-books, tie-ins with radio ads, toys or local sports teams.
  • Is my product or service capable of being grasped or understood within 10 minutes? (e.g. book titles, front cover concepts, full color versus one or two colors, page proofs of the first chapter, table of contents, back cover concepts, graphics, and typeface.)
  • Would the sale of my product or service be influenced by advertising, promotions, presentations, or individual testimonials?
  • Do I need to see other angles, opinions, attitudes, and frameworks of understanding in order to come up with a better marketing plan?
  • Can I easily assemble a representative set of the target audience (e.g. trivia lovers, teachers, retailers, birthday gift buyers)?
  • Do I have the resources to afford focus groups?

There are many sources on the Web that will help your company organize your own focus groups. With a good moderator and recruiter, your company can perform the same job as that of a professional research company.

July 19, 2014

Surrey Fusion Festival

In Greater Vancouver which touts itself as multicultural, most fairs/festivals focus on one community or region, or interest/group e.g. CelticFest, TaiwanFest, Greek Day, Caribbean Days Festival or Vancouver Writers International Festival to name a few.  So it was quite a revelation to see people from all immigrant groups and locals and natives mix together at the annual Surrey Fusion Festival, July 19 and 20, 2014. 

In fact, Surrey’s Fusion Festival was named the “Best Festival” at the annual Special Event Magazine Gala Awards competition on January 10, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. The award recognizes the world’s top special events.

July 14, 2014


Officially it is Saltspring Island (by the Geographical Names Board of Canada) but locals prefer Salt Spring Island (two words).  Canada Post accepts both.  17 miles (27 km) long and 9 miles (14 km) at its widest, it is the largest of the Southern Gulf Islands and the most populous, close to 11,000 residents.  The island got its name from the 14 briny (hence salty) springs on the north end of the island, now on private property.

From Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay

There are three ferry terminals in Salt Spring: Fulford Harbour, Vesuvius and Long Harbour.  From Tsawwassen (closest to Vancouver BC) there are direct services to Long Harbour, see http://www.bcferries.com.   The problem is if you want to catch the Saturday market early when the goodies for sale are in their max, you have to leave the day before.  The very first Saturday ferry from Tsawwassen to Long Harbour leaves at 12:38 pm and does not berth at Long till 2 pm.  And then you have to catch a bus (if you can get a seat in the first mini-bus) to Ganges where the market is.  If the first bus is full, there can be long lines,  it will be another 30 minute wait.  So by the time you get to the market, a number of vendors have little to sell.

So to be there before noon, I decided to go Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay (in Vancouver Island) and then connect to a smaller boat to Fulford Harbour. 
Closing in Fulford Harbour
If you take this route, tell the ticket agent your intent and you will get a detour pass so you will pay the same rate for  a direct trip.  Get it?  E-mail me if you want further explanation.

Bring CAD$2.25 in cash for the one way bus fare from Fulford Harbour to the village of Ganges 7.5 miles (12 km) north.  To get a seat in the first trip, try to walk out of the ferry boat first and walk as fast as you can to the waiting bus (from the boat,you will see a white mini parked at the right side pedestrian ramp). 
Fulford Harbour: The white public transit bus is at the right.

Ganges is a town, not a river.  It was named after HMS Ganges, the flagship of the Royal Navy's Pacific Station between 1857 and 1860. Once in Ganges, you will pass by the bustling summer market at your right (in Ganges’ Centennial Park next to the water) but you will be let off in front of the Information Center and then a five minute walk back.

The largest in the Gulf Islands, the Salt Spring Saturday Market is open on Saturdays from 8:30 am till 4 pm.  On certain long weekends, the market is in business starting late afternoon Friday till Sunday.  See http://saltspringmarket.com/


At the market, there was an excellent free sampling of Salt Spring Island cheese. 

A French couple which has a bakery in the island, Rendezvous Patisserie, was selling delectable pastries.  They said their most popular item is Canneles de Bordeaux, which did quickly sell out to my dismay. 
Chocolate Incroyable
But there were still some chocolate Incroyable (meringue) at CAD$2.50 each.  Incroyable in literal French means “incredible”.  They taste and look like a bigger version of French macarons- airy, sweet - but really just a meringue.

To be a vendor in the market, you must “make it, bake it, or grow it yourselves”.  All products must be “vendor produced and sold”.  
At one end of the market, a hot dog kiosk was fascinating with its wide selection of condiments and relishes.  I remarked to the lady those huge hot dogs were good.  The lady responded, 

“We tried all brands, and found out the best is from Costco.”

Tree House Cafe
Once done with the summer market, the town of Ganges itself is actually interesting http://www.saltspringisland.org/.  The original Mouat's Store which opened in 1907 still operates in its 1911 building.  Mouat’s is like a combination of Home Depot and Hudson Bay or Macy’s.  There is the Black Sheep Bookstore and the touristy Tree House CafĂ© built around and under a plum tree.  Drop by the Information Center, their staff are friendly and helpful.

Salt Spring is renowned for its lamb.  The only store that sells the cuts is at Country Grocer, a supermarket, which is further up, a good half an hour walk from Ganges center, at Upper Ganges.  That day the local lamb was on sale at 30% off.  Weeks later, I roasted the chops - good but nothing outstanding.

To get the island feel, I tented overnight at very shady woody quiet Garden Faire Campground, see www.gardenfaire.ca, a 15 minute trudge from the Info/Bus Stop. 

This is Vesuvius - really residential.

A road stall near Vesuvius on an Honor System - you drop your cash in a box.

Early Sunday I hitched a couple of rides to a village I am curious to see because of its name, Vesuvius, also known as Vesuvius Bay.  A volcano nearby?  Far from it - named after HMS Vesuvius, a ship of the Royal Navy assigned to the Canadian Pacific in the 19th Century.   

Vesuvius was first settled first on 1857 by nine American blacks who had purchased their freedom from slavery.   Most of their descendants have left Salt Spring.  In my weekend there, I did not see any Black Canadian.   

To my shock, a man driving a pick up made eye contact and pointed two of his fingers in a V towards his eyes.

At Vesuvius, I took a quick ferry to Crofton in Vancouver Island.  Crofton is a blue collar town with a pulp and paper mill as the main employer.  It has a pretty boardwalk.

By mid-afternoon I made it back to Fulford Harbour and I had time to look at the shops.   If you are into dyed shirts, there is a very creative local artist.

The ferry back to Swartz Bay is on an honor system.  Make sure you buy the fare from an automated machine with your credit card.  If you don’t and you plan to return to Tsawwassen, without a ticket to show to the counter at Swartz Bay to get your connection , you will be obliged to pay a much costlier fare.