Promo Workshop

The Trouble With Market Research

A few years back, on a post-Promax training tour of the United States, I had the great privilege of speaking to some very talented and creative promo producers.

It was a huge learning-curve for me… and I hope for the audience too!
Either way, I’m sure I did some good work in my quest to forever rid the world of the insidious McPromo.

However, there was one moment that completely caught me on the back foot. It was a comment from an exasperated producer that went something like this: “Your session is great Charley. But if I did the stuff you’re talking about, my promo would get killed in research.”

Research, in this case, was a whole new step in the promo-making process that I had been unaware of: the sending of the finished promo to an audience test facility to be analysed and approved by a group of so-called “regular people”.

Not just one or two promos a year. Pretty much every promo that was made went through the focus-group process.

I knew this was one of the most ridiculous things I had ever heard.
I guessed this was probably another mandate of mediocrity from the marketing department. But I just didn't know what to say. I simply froze. It was all just too overwhelming in its titanic stupidity.

I know I gave the producer the lamest response of the whole trip.
Something about “feeling her pain” and “just keep at it”. Oh, dear.

It took several weeks to compile my thoughts; because as I thought about it, I realised market research was just so wrong, on so many levels…


1/. Market research is not “double blind”. It is usual for the client’s expectations of the results to be telegraphed to the research company and through to the focus group. The focus group’s responses can be then selectively filtered to present to the client the pre-formed results the client was hoping for.

2/. Focus groups aren’t a true cross-section of society. They’re only the segment of the population who have nothing else to do, and really need that fifty buck shopping voucher.

3/. People in research groups tend to say what they think the facilitator wants them to say.

4/. People in research groups usually give responses that reflect how they perceive themselves; not how they actually are. (This is why, as an entertainment genre, documentaries do well in qualitative research, and terribly in quantitative research.)

5/. Focus groups are regularly commandeered by one dominant person who becomes the group’s opinion leader.

6/. Opinion and feedback is flawed because (as my training tries to make clear) persuasive communication happens unconsciously by the receiver. Asking a focus group to comment on their personal purchasing decisions is asking them to express consciously things that they, most of the time, do unconsciously.

7/. ”Regular People” are not used to expressing these feelings; but even if they could, they would be too complex and subtle to be recorded by a cheap video camera from behind a two-way mirror; or captured in a broadly phrased, multiple choice questionnaire.

So what about market research of TV promos? Why is that so bad?
It’s because everything I have described above applies… and combines… to form a new kind of horror.

You see, people don’t actually know what they want to watch on television.
If TV shows were made based on what people said they wanted, we’d still all be watching Leave It To Beaver.

I have seen promos screened at focus groups. And the same thing happens: When viewing promos, audience research participants will commonly trash a spot with responses like: “I didn’t like it. It didn’t tell me what the show is about”… meaning the promo will be sent back for a remake because it’s not informative enough.

Why is that a problem?

Because, the job of a promo is to make people want to watch a show, not to tell them what it’s about.

A promo is supposed to not tell the audience about what a show is. That’s how you get them to watch it! A promo that’s too informative gives no reason for the viewer to have to watch the programme.

A promo that purposely leaves things unresolved is always going to get a response from a focus group like: “But I don’t know what it’s about!”

But that’s the reaction promos are supposed to get.

It’s omission that creates a sense of expectation, of confusion, of un-ease that, in the usual home environment, can only be remedied by watching the show.

Get it?!

It’s not what you tell the audience. It’s what you don’t tell them that really matters.

I bet all of the focus group folks who ever complained about a promo not being informative enough, went home and ended up watching the show just to satisfy their need to find out what the promo was all about.

Just because an audience doesn’t like a promo, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad promo.

Does a promo have to be informative? Yes. But only ever informative enough to get the communication to a level that generates intrigue.

There’s no promo prerequisite that can ever beat the one that says:
A promo should make people want to watch the show.

It’s the Rock/Paper/Scissors game that can never be won.
And never improved upon by market research.


Charley Holland is a content creator with 30 years experience in the TV industry. He is reasonably underwhelmed by social media, which is why you can find him on Facebook; LinkedIn; Twitter; Google+

©2013 The Charley Holland Agency