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Marie Claire and death by focus group

It’s probably not a surprise that hacks and editors talk about other magazines a lot – usually to damn the competition, but occasionally to praise the good stuff too. One name that used to come up a lot was Marie Claire, which stood out from the me-too world of women’s publishing with its combination of the usual suspects together with really good features. Sadly over the last few years it’s gone more and more lowbrow – a recent Paris Hilton cover was particularly bad – so here comes a redesign to rescue it.

Unfortunately the redesign is based on focus groups, and the result is awful: a huge chunk of the magazine is now devoted to shopping, and the overall magazine seems to suffer from a major case of me-tooism – to the point that my wife is cancelling her subscription. From must-read to must-bin in just over a year.

By comparison, the LA Times is also considering its direction – but instead of focus groups, it’s asking its own staff. According to UK Press Gazette:

The LAT has appointed three of its best investigative reporters and half a dozen editors to look into ideas for making the paper more appealing to readers – and advertisers.

That makes a lot of sense. After all, reporters spend a lot of time highlighting the flaws in other people’s companies – so why not get a bunch of your own opinionated sods to turn their jaundiced eye on their own publication? I suspect the reason it doesn’t happen more often is because hacks say what they see, whether it upsets people or not – and if they’re looking at their own publications, the people they’ll upset and whose strategies they might mock are the people who pay their wages. If they’re fearless, they could end up sacked; if they let that worry them, they might pull their punches and render the whole exercise worthless.

It’s an interesting idea, though. Rather than sending for the focus groups, could it be cheaper – and more useful – to commission some of your own people to do an in-depth, “what’s wrong with…” expose?

18 replies on “Marie Claire and death by focus group”

Well I assume Jo menas soemthing along the lines of:

The conservatives are a good example of the worst of both.

Allowing your own people to pick the direction is great, unless they choose stuff that only they are interested in – i.e. Magazine becomes too niche and just not mainstream enough – Tory party bangs on about europe whilst voters are much more interested in the NHS etc.

But now the tories are going focus group mad and it’s resulting in exactly these same middle of the road, uniteresting grey gloop, please everyone type things – the same problem as maire claire.

For the tories however, they had fallen so far away from the voters that at least moving back towards the please everyone ground *was* required. The question is if – like marie claire – they’ve gone to far, or this is just an ‘over-correction’ and they will start to come up with some different interesting things once they’ve got used to being back in the centre a bit.

Hmm. No, not really what I meant. (And voters are interested in Europe, as the overwhelming public support for people willing to go to jail over the right to sell things in pounds & ounces demonstrates.)

No, what I meant was that focus groups tell you what people like that they already have. But that’s little use to anyone trying to find a gap in the market — be it in magazines or the electorate — because they already have it. What anyone trying to succeed in a competitive market needs to figure out is what people would like to have but probably haven’t realised that they’d like because it’s not on offer.

Cameron’s myriad focus groups have told him what people like about the Labour Government and what people expected from Labour and are disappointed that they didn’t get. So he’s trying to give people those things by turning into the Labour Party, only (he promises) more effective. Similarly, Marie Claire’s focus groups have discovered what readers like about other magazines, and they’ve become less distinctive by trying to offer those things.

Oh I didn’t say voters *aren’t* interested in europe. Only that they tend to be *more* interested in other things unless there is an obvious issue relating to it in focus at a given moment (e.g. replacing pints with litres etc)

There is also the pub bore effect – if someone bangs on about one subject and just won’t give it a rest – no matter how interested in you are anyone with any real imagination tends to eventually lose interest and wants to talk about something else.

And I was trying to get at what you really meant, but I just didn’t express it as well as you – not a suprise as it is your point after all… ;-)

I still think the interesting thing about the tories is what they do now that they moved so much back onto the non-controvesial focus group based middle ground. Can they actually start to come up with some interest policies that would make people stop and think? (taking ‘ID cards are a waste of time and money – dump them and do something that really helps fight terrorism’ and shouting it from the rooftops is an obvious one that leaps to mind) I have to say it doesn’t look like it from what we’ve seen so far…

> Can they actually start to come up with some interest policies that would make people stop and think?

I doubt it, but they might. But, even if they do, it won’t matter, because the policies won’t be based on any principles. That’s the problem with the focus groups: if Cameron had any actual principles, he wouldn’t need to ask other people what his policies should be. Similar with Marie Claire: if they really knew what their magazine was, what it’s essential point was, they wouldn’t need to ask other people what to put in it.

This analogy just keeps working. All we need now is for Cameron to publish a manifesto with “297 new policies that could change your life” on the front cover. And maybe the word “sex”.

Worryingly, that doesn’t sound so implausible does it?

Presumably after that he’ll launch the ‘Just dave’ range of mens toiletries and cosmetics for the discerning conservative voter. The women will just lap it up, buying it for their spouses.

He could gain market share by using a magazine cover promotion – perhaps with a well known womens magazine that’s losing market share and looking for new and ground breaking way to atract people back to its pages. Hold on, I think I know just the one… ;-)

Gah, I’ve been holding back on commenting because I’ve been planning a post on focus groups on my site, but as usual, work gets in the way.

So, quickly:

1. I’m not convinced that focus groups give you the best answers: when you ask them what they want, they either say “more of all of it” or “could you make that fishing magazine about bikes, then I’d buy it”. Neither of which is especially helpful, but it’s a good way to break out of thinking that everything you do is great and readers just need to pick up your mag to realise it.

2. Asking the writers should be done on a daily basis, but they’re often so close to their subject, and spend so much time immersed in it, that they’ll say — using tech magazines as an example here — “you really need to talk about XX-Blah-Blah-No-One-Cares-Motherboard because everyone is raving about it”. Er, thanks :)

3. In response to Squander’s if they really knew what their magazine was, what it’s essential point was, they wouldn’t need to ask other people what to put in it: I always ask readers what they want, but maybe in a less formal environment than a focus group. It’s not really a case of saying “what do you want?” but asking “what are you interested in?” and then trying to produce a mag that meets those interests. But — magazines or anything else — I think that talking to your customers is vital. I’ll stop now before I go off into marketing spiel about marketing not being selling but about producing a product people actually want. But it is :)

Phew.

It’s not really a case of saying “what do you want?” but asking “what are you interested in?” and then trying to produce a mag that meets those interests.

Sounds eminently sensible: it’s not talking to your customers that’s the problem, it’s asking the wrong questions (or not listening properly to the answers).

Sorry, missed a bit:

Asking the writers should be done on a daily basis, but they’re often so close to their subject, and spend so much time immersed in it, that they’ll say…

/ remembers some of the “great” ideas I’ve mentioned to editors

/ goes bright red

/ hurls self off a bridge

Paul,

Your answer to my point just makes me realise how extremely badly worded it was. What I meant to get at was something more like your “could you make that fishing magazine about bikes”. Yes, of course Marie Claire should ask their readers what they’re interested in, but while always remembering what Marie Claire is and what it isn’t. The resort to focus groups implies that they’re willing to take on board any suggestions, including “Be more like TV Quick.”

Now Gary’s dead, do you think he’ll still update the blog?

Squander, I think you’re spot on. A magazine needs to know what its core point is, and then when it asks readers what they want, it says “ok, how can we deliver that with our unique angle?” So when a fishing magazine, which has the proposition “we only catch the biggest fish”, hears from its readers that they want to read about bikes, it runs a feature on cycling to your favourite fishing spot to catch really big fish. Or something.

And when Marie Claire’s readers say they want more on shopping it’s then up to the editorial team to decide how to produce more shopping content with a unique Marie Claire take on it.

Not being a Marie Claire reader, I can’t comment on whether they’ve done that or not, but Gary’s post suggests not.

Gary’s post suggests not.

Ach, who knows? Maybe it’ll be a great success. But I’m reminded of the press gazette article about me-tooism the other week that argued – if everyone’s doing the same thing, the big brand will be the one that succeeds. So if Grazia does the shopping thing better than MC, women will stick with Grazia rather than suddenly jump ship to MC.

I think the problem with me-tooism is that it doesn’t expand the market; it just leads to a bunch of titles haggling over the same readers. Which, in these internet-eating-our-lunch days, doesn’t strike me as a very good idea.

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