It’s Time to Focus: A Closer Look at In-Person Focus Groups
By Mary M. Flory (AMA’s Managing Editor of Magazines and e-Newsletters)
With new digital opportunities to interact with consumers emerging on a regular basis, traditional means of acquiring market data can get called into question, prompting researchers to regroup. But remember: New doesn’t always replace old.
Consider the in-person focus group, for example. “In-person focus groups are becoming more difficult to execute for both the consumer and the client,” says Jessica Castro, marketing research analyst at Orlando, Fla.-based Mindspot Research. “Requiring a participant’s undivided attention and time, as well as the inconvenience of getting to the focus group location, is a hindrance. With today’s rapidly evolving markets and trends, consumers have adopted a culture that fosters efficient use of their time and resources. An online survey captures their feedback and thoughts while allowing them the freedom to participate at the time and location they choose.”
However, Marie Rice, practice director of custom research at Cambridge, Mass.-based Cogent Research, contends that, “Younger people may enjoy an online exercise; older people may prefer in-person. We have had success recruiting physicians to CoreBoard (online bulletin boards that combine online focus groups with bulletin boards).
“I have also had success in recruiting financial advisors to attend in-person focus groups during a blizzard in New York City. It depends more on the topic and the geographic distribution—and the ability to recruit—than on the mode of the group.”
Also, there is a “greater awareness of focus groups among consumers,” explains Sharon Seidler, senior vice president of Chicago-based C+R Research, “so in that respect, I feel it is easier to convince them to come in because they are less suspicious of why they are being invited.”
She does point out though, that it might be, ”easier to convince respondents to participate in online research simply because it is more convenient for them. But,” Seidler points out, “the very same issues are present in online surveys as in-person—both methods have the problem of attracting fresh, new respondents. There are lots of repeat respondents who shouldn’t be on online panels over and over, just as there are over-used in-person participants who are recruited by focus group facilities.”
The recession has a strong impact on consumer interest in participating in in-person focus groups, points out Tom Bernthal, the founder and CEO of Kelton, a market research company with offices in New York City and Culver City, CA, Calif. “People are more compelled by the incentive (generally $50 to $250, depending on the demographic we need) than they’ve ever been. If you call someone up and offer them $100 for a couple hours of their time, people now see that as an opportunity they can’t pass up. Over the last few months, as the economy has slightly improved and gas prices have increased, we’ve sometimes needed to offer a bit more than before, but the money is still hard to walk away from.”
Bernthal also advocates having an in-house recruiting manager. The one at Kelton, he explains, “personally pre-screens participants to be sure we’re getting a group that is precisely who they say they are. The unintended result is that people notice from the beginning that this is a more thoughtful recruit, and they become interested in the topic and eager to participate in the discussion. The depth of this conversation can’t happen in [an online] survey and people want to be heard.”
“Properly recruiting focus groups has always been one of the most overlooked aspects of market research,” Bernthal says. “Major brands often either make decisions or evolve thinking based on the feedback of just a few dozen people; getting those people to be representative is vital. Too many companies outsource this to facilities and hope for the best, and too many of us have been in too many dud groups.
“That’s why, for years now,” he continues, “we’ve had an in-house recruiting manager who personally screens participants before they qualify. We use several tactics like creative recruit screens and dummy questions, all intended to be sure that every single person in our sessions can really inspire our thoughts and the thoughts of our client. Clients constantly are blown away when they see the impact this makes—brand manager and marketers know, the moment they start listening, whether these are truly their customers or not.”
At Mindspot Research, Castro says, “We find that the level of interest and enthusiasm for the topic is the most important factor. Motivating a participant to really engage in the subject matter is going to produce the best unbiased results for the client. Therefore, recruiting from an appropriate sample and appropriately incentivizing the participant for their time is essential. Another important element is a carefully developed discussion guide that resonates with the participants and actively engages them in the topic.”
Seidler adds, “A cash honorarium commensurate with the market and amount of time and work expected of the participant,” is key to attracting the right respondents. “It has to be worth it to them.” Also, use common sense—don’t hold focus groups on days like July 5 or Jan. 2. “Interestingly,” Rice adds, “financial advisors really enjoy networking with their peers, as does the medical profession, and can be two audiences who are easy to recruit that you wouldn’t normally expect to be. Also, retirees are one of the easiest segments to recruit.”
“Online surveys are just not a substitute for focus groups at all,” Bernthal says. “We use surveys every day, but it’s generally to size an audience, quantitatively determine the prevalence of certain attitudes and behaviors, or to assess a business case for the recommendations that come out of our work.
“Focus groups, on the other hand, come much earlier in the process. They’re to understand why things are the way they are. They inspire new thoughts. They give people in our business the chance to get so close to the consumer you can almost touch them, and then sit back and listen to a great moderator create an environment that allows people to openly share. That sharing, when well facilitated, will enable you to see into people’s lives. That would never happen in a survey.”
Castro adds that in-person focus groups are a great way to measure consumer’s non-verbal communication, which cannot be as clearly conveyed in online research. “It is those elements such as body language, voice tone and the vigor of their responses that are easily visible in-person. Yet, we are finding that more and more online focus groups can capture even more detailed results and explanations. When consumers are online it affords them a greater degree of anonymity, which allows them to share at a higher level. For example, online groups are great for exploring sensitive topics, such as chronic illness or personal products.”