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Farmers and focus groups

More companies are asking more farmers to sit in on focus groups. Should you agree? What rules should you expect?

From the day the first farmer put the first seed in the ground, there’s never been a farmer who didn’t have a wealth of opinions. Nor have there been very many farmers who take much if any persuading to share what they think.

In today’s more sophisticated world, however, the game has changed. Companies want your opinion both so they can design better products that work better on your farm, and also so they can achieve their own objectives, i.e. getting more of your money. The two go hand in hand.

So if you get a call to participate in a focus group, will you be helping to design a better product or go-to-market strategy that will help all farmers? Or will you primarily be helping the company’s bottom line?

Equally important, will the focus group actually make a difference? Or will it be a waste of time, helping some marketing agency pad its own fees?

What does a good focus group look like?

We asked some of the people who organize focus groups for their own take on what makes a focus group worth attending.

Ben Graham, managing partner at AdFarm, which conducts focus groups exclusively for the agricultural industry, says farmers can get valuable insight from the quality of the questions that the focus group gets asked.

“We work hard to avoid the obvious or the not-so-smart questions,” Graham says. “You’ve got to ask good questions because if you are trying to gain market intelligence, your information is only as good as the questions you ask.”

Farmers can also get insight from whether the organizers seem to understand agriculture. “We certainly don’t do focus groups during seeding and harvest,” says Colin Siren, vice-president at Ipsos Reid, where he conducts an average of 20 to 30 focus groups a year with farmers and others in the agricultural industry. “We don’t contact our farmers on Sunday, and because farmers are typically more available early in the morning, unless they’re a dairy farmer, we tend to do morning focus groups and then a lunch session, whereas with consumers it would almost always be done in the evening when they tend to be more available.”

Something seems to be working, though, because Canada’s farmers do participate in focus groups.

“My gut feeling is that participation is higher (among farmers) than among the general public because from a farmer’s perspective, there’s a lot more to offer in the discussion than just the incentive that they receive for coming out to the group,” says Siren. “They get some insight into something that might impact how they think about their business.”

How much should they pay?

Farmers generally receive a small cash incentive for participating in a focus group, but that’s less a motivation than an acknowledgement of respect for their time and opinion.

Graham agrees. “It’s not a ton of money — maybe $50, $100 or $200 depending on the need of the group,” he says. “But really, the money isn’t the driver. Farmers have a passion for their business, and their love for what they do gives us a really good opportunity to get involvement.”

That’s the viewpoint from farmers too. “My hope was that I was contributing something to my industry through my presence at the focus group just by being heard, having a voice for someone who was listening,” says Craig Christensen who farms 9,000 acres of cereals and oilseeds east of Calgary and attended a recent focus group.

“I don’t know if I was making a difference, but it felt good to try,” Christensen says. “If I did make a difference I think it was just by helping the facilitators understand what my concerns were for my business and the agricultural industry.”

Focus groups also give farmers a chance to swap notes with their peers and see what other parts of the industry are up to. “There were a lot of different types of farmers in the room but a lot of the concerns were very similar. It seems wherever you go a farmer is a farmer,” says Christensen.

And Graham finds farmers also want to make sure the story isn’t wrong. Agriculture can suffer from misinformation or badly presented arguments, so a chance to set the record straight is a good motivation for many producers to participate in focus groups, he says. “I think part of what motivates producers is the danger of not participating, because somebody else might put some opinions forward that might hurt their business or agriculture in general and they don’t want to take that risk.”

Why a focus group?

Businesses and organizations commission focus groups for any number of reasons. Sometimes it’s to get a feel for how a new product would be received, or to solicit feedback on issues or challenges that face the industry.

Often the focus group helps to shape arguments or frame positions on a specific topic, or it assists companies to develop the right marketing messages and campaigns.

“If a company has multiple messages about, say, a new product, it wants to make sure it has the right messages in the right order,” says Graham. “Let’s say it’s a fertility product and it’s great on yields, really good for the environment because it’s a controlled-release product. It makes things easier to store and manage on your farm, and maybe it’s easier to apply. So you’ve got this whole long list of messages you could tell the grower. The beauty of the research is it helps you prioritize that message so that you make sure you lead with the most important message to the grower.”

For Christensen, the focus group was called because an advertiser wanted to better understand their target audience. “I think that could have a potential impact for my business, which would hopefully be better advertising content and delivery, and hopefully help the agricultural industry be better informed about what purchasers of agricultural inputs and products are looking for.”

Effective focus groups

Getting the right people in the room is as important as asking the right questions, and there’s a lot of work and effort that goes into filling the chairs.

“A product, for example, might be targeted to  mid-size farmers, so in the West I might need to talk to farmers that have between 1,000 and 3,000 acres that are predominately wheat and canola growers. Part of the recruitment process is to find growers that match that segment,” says Graham. “In Canada it’s tough because of our privacy laws, so we would have to query farmers about how many acres they farm and whether they would like to participate.”

Farmers can also be segmented by demographic or psychographic information. “We may want to talk to progressive farmers. So that’s a little tougher. How do you decide which farmer is more progressive than the next?” says Graham. “We have to build some questions and scenarios and select the appropriate farmers.”

Then, after you have the right people in the room, you need to run an effective program.

That requires a facilitator who can make people in the room comfortable with each other and the process, says Scott Samoleski, vice-president of Street Smart Marketing Strategy Inc., which conducts focus groups for many different industry sectors, including agriculture.

“We usually try to keep our meetings intimate with about six to eight people, and keep the duration to about two hours,” Samoleski says. “We let them know the reason they’re there is to get their opinion, and that the more honest they are, the better. Not only are we learning what their opinion is but we have the opportunity to ask questions and find out why they feel that way, and what would it take to perhaps change their perspective.”

Christensen says he liked the format of the focus group he attended. “It was really well organized, and the questions were fair and pertinent about our issues and concerns for our business and agriculture going forward,” he says. “I really liked the open ended questions because they were designed to encourage open discussion.”

Avoiding groupthink

Samoleski’s group has developed what he calls a unique style that helps ensure no one person dominates the conversation. “When you are running the group it’s important to make sure that you get everyone’s opinions before they hear other people talk to avoid groupthink,” says Samoleski. “We make sure that people commit to their point of view before we enter into a discussion. We put questions on the table and ask everyone to individually think about what their answers are. Then we go to every single person and make sure that we hear what they had to say. If we see that people are parroting back what they heard somebody else say, we go back and ask them what they had written down.”

Samoleski’s clients are looking for more than just an information dump from focus group conversations. They want detailed analysis that identifies trends and common issues and provides them with direction. It’s the reason that Samoleski makes audio and videotapes of each meeting. He will carefully analyze the information afterwards and give his clients a better idea which subjects are pushing the emotional buttons of participants.

“When you’re running a meeting, you’re concentrating on the timing, the flow, and making sure that you’re getting everything out of people,” Samoleski says. “We turn the audio recording into a written transcript so we know exactly what every person in the room said. The video gives us the degree of expression so we can tell if someone’s skeptical or if they’re passionate or if they’re upset about something.”

Identifying the common patterns from various focus groups allows clients to understand what’s most important to a potential audience. Sometimes there might be one person in the room who really harps on a particular thing, and you think that must be a big deal, says Samoleski. By comparing that meeting against four or five others, however, you can get better insight into whether it’s actually a unique issue to that one grower, or something that seriously affects a number of others too.

Christensen has no hesitation in speakng up about issues, but he knows not everyone is comfortable doing that in a group setting, and his only criticism of the process was that he felt there should have been an opportunity for one-on-one discussions as well. “If you are talking about business concerns and opportunities, farmers typically like to keep that kind of stuff tight to the vest and those conversations don’t happen easily,” he says. “I think a more personal component would have made it easier for some people to open up.”

Get to the decision makers

Not all focus groups bring people together in a room. Online groups are also common and have the advantage of being able to connect a wider audience. The Internet also provides some social listening opportunities that can give insight into general cultural or industry trends.

“Often the discussions that are being held in social media spaces about farming are more general than what our clients are looking for,” says Siren. “But social listening has its place. If you even look at something as simple as Google Analytics you have a baseline to understand the type of dialogue and discussion that’s going on now and compare that to 10 years ago. It’s a very powerful tool, especially when there’s a change in public dialogue or perceptions.”

Social media can sometimes trigger focus groups, adds Graham. “Social media can be a tool to help us mould focus groups because we’ll discover a groundswell of discussion about something, which can prompt the need for more investigation and market intelligence,” he says.

For many of Samoleski’s clients, a focus group helps bring the board room and the farm gate closer together. “What we try to do is put the customer in the boardroom,” he says. “It’s ironic that the people with all the decision-making authority are the people that have the least contact with customers. And the people that have the most contact with customers have the least power to impact change. Part of our role is to try and reduce the gap between executive leadership in a company or organization and what’s happening on the ground floor.”

The survey says…

If you’re sick of hearing the phone ring, or of getting your email or you mailbox clogged with survey requests, you aren’t alone.

“It’s becoming tougher to get farmers to participate in surveys because it’s so overdone,” says Ben Graham of Adfarm. “There are so many points where surveys are used; there are online surveys, call-in surveys, surveys at trade shows, so we have to think of unique ways to do it. Questions need to be short and to the point. Digital is becoming the best way to do surveys because it’s the least time-sensitive for farmers and the time commitment is a lot less.”

But before you throw that survey in the garbage or hit the delete button, it may be well to remember that surveys are a useful tool for many of the companies serving your needs.

“If you’re a canola seed company and you’re trying to gauge where seed sales are at and how many growers have booked their seed early, a survey is excellent for that,” says Graham. “You can come back and say 50 per cent of growers have booked their canola seed and I’m only at 37 per cent of my sales target. There are a lot of other canola seed companies out there and I’m behind, so I’d better get going. Surveys are useful to see current status or even trends.”

Colin Siren of Ipsos Canada says there is a symbiotic relationship between surveys and other types of research such as focus groups and one-on-one interviews. “Surveys continue to play an important role for those trying to understand the attitudes, opinions and behaviours of farmers,” says Siren, who adds Ipsos maintains a survey panel of 120,000 Canadian farmers. “But we also use qualitative research, like focus groups and interviews because these give you the general direction on an issue, whereas quantitative research, such as a survey, allows us to follow up and quantify how far our client is from achieving their goal or the potential for a new product.”

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