I just got back from attending a series of focus groups for a client and am reminded of how crucial it is to stay close to your customers. All of us are in business to provide relevant and meaningful services of value. But we’re living in a world that’s changing fast. If we don’t know our customers well, we can’t stay current. We need to understand what they worry about, how they make their decisions, where they go to get information, who they trust (and who they don’t), what triggers a decision. Research is great. Focus groups are particularly valuable because you get to sit and watch your customers. You have real people in front of you talking about what they think about when they are considering health care, how they know what quality is, when they feel comfortable pushing back to their doctors and when they don’t. The people stick in your mind and when we create marketing programs, we picture these people — we talk to them. But there are new great ways to to stay close to customers: social networking. Let me give you a great example. SpecialK.com has a web site for people who want to lose weight. You can learn about their products, get recipes, tips, etc. But check out “Connect.” You can also go to a facebook page that allows you to talk to others participating. Of the “Victory Chain” allows you to hear what success looks like to various people and add your own. I don’t think the purpose of the site is to sell cereal and cereal bars. There are cheaper and more effective ways to push product. What’s great about the idea is it gives Kelloggs a way to listen to their market. It’s like being a fly on the wall of an ongoing focus group — that is happening naturally. The people engaged are revealing themselves and the insight and learning is available to Kelloggs and, hello! It’s available to you too.