I’ve never been a big fan of focus groups. My skepticism dates back to the early ‘90s, when I was an editor on the team that launched Worth magazine. Like many consumer publications, we used focus groups to test everything from cover designs to potential story ideas. Our marketing team asked people to tell us what they thought they would like to see in a future issue. It seems to me that most people are woefully bad at predicting what they will like, which is why magazines need editors.
Then one day, I was trying to stay awake while watching yet another focus group from behind the one-way glass, as the participants were thumbing through the latest issue and sharing their “wisdom” about the table of contents, feature layouts and what fonts we should use. Suddenly, one of them piped up with: “It would be great if you had a section in here that gave us advice about personal finance.” All the other participants started nodding their heads in agreement. That got my attention, as I was the editor of the section that gave advice on personal finance, and apparently, not one reader out of those 15 could find it.
The problem was that most people flip through magazines looking at the right-hand pages, and in an effort to keep the advertisers happy, our publisher had put my section on the left-hand pages—rendering it virtually invisible. Based on that feedback, I was able to convince the publisher that the personal finance section warranted a more prominent position in the magazine.
I was reminded of that focus group while watching the streaming video of Michael Maslansky’s session at the Loring Ward National Education Conference in Monterey in June. The CEO of Maslansky Luntz and Partners uses his expertise in language and messaging to help litigators, non-profits and many Fortune 500 companies—including Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and UBS—to communicate more effectively about products, brands and issues. He is the author of “The Language of Trust,” and you probably saw his firm’s trademarked polling and focus group methodology during the 2010 elections, where it enabled CNN to show live audiences’ real-time reactions to speeches as they were being given.
If you’re anything like me, you probably have reservations about today’s high-tech quantifying of human behavior, but Maslansky appears to use his knowledge and expertise to help people better understand, and therefore better help, the people they are trying to serve. Still, to fully grasp the power of Maslansky’s process—garnered from over 100 research projects—you really have to see it. It’s like a focus group on steroids. For independent advisors, who have many ideas about what their clients are thinking but very little data to back them up, it’s obviously an eye-opening, mind-bending experience.
At Loring Ward, Maslansky’s program started with a panel consisting of 13 local investors between the ages of 55 and 70 with at least $500,000 in investable assets. Half of the panelists were retired and all had financial advisors. The panelists were seated across a broad stage with a handheld device about the size of a cell phone, with a circular dial. Each panelist could indicate a favorable or unfavorable reaction by twisting the dial. The panelists’ reactions were electronically aggregated to show a composite real-time reaction on a large screen on the stage.
The panelists were shown videos of advisors answering six questions that prospective clients would be likely to ask. The 13 panelists were asked to indicate whether they felt more likely or less likely to engage the advisor who was speaking, second by second, as he was giving his answer. Altogether, this provided the advisors in the audience with an unparalleled insight into how investors truly feel about the various phrases that advisors use to explain their services, their market outlook, what differentiates them, their process, how they get paid and their request for referrals.