Want to know your readers? Better go and live with them

Tomorrow's launch of women's weekly 'Look' follows market research that went way beyond normal focus group conventions. So is bonding with potential buyers the way ahead, asks Jane Thynne
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All editors like to think they know their readers. A former editor of The Daily Telegraph claimed to be able to identify a reader at a hundred paces, generally with a wince. But the executives at IPC have taken reader-research to new lengths in the delivery of their weekly glossy, Look, which goes out on newsstands from tomorrow. For periods in the two years preceding the launch, editors and executives were required to go way beyond conventional procedures and actually move in with potential readers, bunking up in spare rooms round the country, going down the pub, and sharing the meals, dreams and lives of ordinary young women.

It's called "immersion research", or ethnography - the need not just to understand your reader, but to "know their DNA", as IPC puts it. While IPC's research reflects the highly competitive nature of the market now facing magazines, the technique has also been used by other media outlets, including the BBC, where director-general Mark Thompson and Tim Davie, the Corporation's marketing director, have booked in whole days with ordinary people, noting exactly what they do, say and watch.

IPC's Chris Taylor explains: "Usually in magazines, someone has an idea - a lightbulb goes on - and they work on it to see if it has legs. But we went out to our audience. We literally lived for weeks at a time with readers in their homes. We went to the shop and the pub with them, we developed relationships with them. It's a quantum leap away from focus groups and, 'Do they like blue on the cover?', and more about how readers live their lives.

Evelyn Webster, managing director of IPC Connect - who got to swap her Wimbledon Village home for stays in Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester - says it was significant that interest in a consumer group came before the idea for the magazine.

"We didn't start out with a special concept," she says. "I was just interested in this group, so I decided to immerse myself in their lives. What pees them off, what turns them on. In their own environment, women will open up and talk frankly. You're not just observing, you're experiencing their life. We went to nightclubs, the pub, or I'd rummage through wardrobes, chatting."

Once a product is launched, consumers are now subject to a battery of new marketing tools to counter their increased immunity to advertising messages. Buzz, stealth and viral marketing techniques keep a product in the public's mind, but ways of getting into the customer's mind creatively before the product is conceived are also on the increase. It may be Orwellian, but going eyeball to eyeball with the consumer is taking off as companies become wary of focus groups.

As David Fletcher, head of MEC MediaLab, says: "There is a limit to what you can get out of a focus group. You get these professional respondents and they understand how the thing works - they play a role. And there is also a deep psychological desire to want to please - to say what they'll be valued for saying. Yet often the solution lies with what's not said, rather than what is, and ethnography can spot the things that get under the radar."

Behind all this is a profound shift in society, whereby through CCTV on the high street, Big Brother and other reality TV shows, people have become accustomed to being observed, and many enjoy it.Up close and personal, people can be seen making those decisions which seem trivial yet are so crucial to the marketer. "For example, you might see someone at the school gate saying, 'Oh, there's a two-for-one on Dairylea at Asda'," says Fletcher. "That's the kind of thing that is so trivial it simply gets forgotten in a focus group, but observation gives you an insight into the granularity of everyday life."

Can you ever really "know" a consumer? It would take a psychiatrist or a philosopher to answer that, but Webster believes she has a much closer insight into the desires of the average 18-30 year old woman as a result of all those nights out. And observation did overturn some traditional assumptions. "Contrary to what you might think, romance is not big on their radar before the age of 30," she says. "You discover that what interests this group is not really men but celebrities and shopping."

In fashion, perhaps more than other sectors, where stripes are so yesterday and florals so now, or vice versa, it is crucial to understand the broader picture of readers' lives underlying fleeting trends. "Knowing the zeitgeist is so much more important now," says Green. "In the magazine world, those waves come quicker but they also crash quicker."

Claire Beale, editor of Campaign magazine, adds: "The stakes are much higher now. There's a lot more competition for advertising revenue and for people's time, with the internet increasingly satisfying niche entertainment requirements." Yet she is sceptical of the value of observation unless undertaken over long periods. "You can conduct long-term focus group research or you can get a few people and send them round the country to stay with people, and frankly that might prove rather more patchy."

Given that Look is IPC's biggest launch, to which it is committing £18m with the help of Groupe Marie Claire, the publishers have clearly done their homework. You might say spending several months of sleep-overs to discover that what really motivates young women is celebrities and shopping is a bit of a dismaying prospect but at least Webster's enthusiasm matches her target audience. "This generation is different," she says. "They've got so much get up and go. We spent a long time with them but, really, they were a joy to be with."