the new science of focus groups

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Last fall, 15 million students headed off to college, many moving into that mysterious world known as the dorm. These first-time dorm denizens, along with their other college peers, spent an estimated $210 billion in 2002 on everything from microwave ovens to shower loofahs, representing a tantalizing marketing opportunity.

Yet how can retail-product designers, well beyond their college years, know what their young customers do not: what life in a dorm is like today? How can they help young adults away from home for the first time figure out how to navigate communal bathrooms as well as the intricacies of the clothes washer and dryer?

These are questions that intrigued Target, the Minneapolis-based discount retailer, primed to launch a product line aimed at the college segment. In search of qualitative research that would elicit deep insights, emotions and motivations from college students, Target hired San Mateo, Calif.-based research firm Jump Associates. What Jump delivered was a different spin on the traditional focus group, exemplifying the type of creative, eclectic approach to qualitative research that's becoming increasingly popular. The research enabled Target to hear firsthand from college-bound students about their concerns when shopping for their dorm rooms and to get a sense from college students of what life in a dorm is like.

“We were fascinated with the underlying social dynamic of going to college,� says Dev Patnaik, managing associate at Jump. So the firm sponsored a series of “game nights� at high school grads' homes, inviting incoming college freshman as well as students with a year of dorm living under their belts. (Each was paid an incentive, similar to a focus group participant.) To get teens talking about dorm life, Jump devised a board game that involved issues associated with going to college. The game naturally led to informal conversations — and questions — about college life. Jump researchers were on the sidelines to observe, while a video camera recorded the proceedings.

The research paid off. Last year, Target launched the Todd Oldham Dorm Room product line designed for college freshman. Among the new offerings: Kitchen in a Box, which provides basic accoutrements for a budding college cook; Bath in a Box, which includes an extra-large bath towel to preserve modesty on the trek to and from the shower; and a laundry bag with instructions on how to actually do the laundry printed on the bag. Thanks in part to the Dorm Room line, Target held its own during the back-to-school season. In the third quarter of 2002, when most of the year's back-to-school shopping for college students was done, revenues at Target stores increased 12 percent over the third quarter of 2001, to $8.4 billion, while comparable store sales increased by only 1 percent.

Patnaik calls the game night “the antidote to the traditional focus group,� a process he views as “a customer terrarium, with people behind glass,� much the same way plants and lizards are taken out of their natural surroundings and observed for scientific purposes. In Patnaik's view, traditional focus groups often make it impossible for market researchers to learn the truth about what customers are feeling. Still, many companies rely on focus groups, in which 8-to-12 people are gathered in a room that has a two-way mirror, to make their marketing decisions. But according to Patnaik, “Focus groups are the crack cocaine of market research. You get hooked on them, and you're afraid to make a move without them.�

Whether or not focus groups are addictive, marketers are certainly heavy users. In 2001, companies spent $1.1 billion on qualitative research, most of this for focus groups, says Larry Gold, editor and publisher of Inside Research, a monthly publication based in Barrington, Ill., that tracks the market research industry. But in an era of rising expectations, qualitative research, especially focus groups, is increasingly under the gun. In fact, despite the proliferation of focus groups that are held prior to product launches, an astonishing 80 percent of all new products or services fail within six months or fall significantly short of projections, points out Harvard marketing professor Gerald Zaltman, in his new book, How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market (Harvard Business School Press, 2003).

Of course, it's not reasonable to place the blame for these product failures squarely on the shoulders of traditional focus groups — but even those who conduct them admit that the method has room for improvement. Today, the field of qualitative research is changing, not only in response to its critics, but also to benefit from advancing technology and research methodology. Some are turning to cutting-edge segmentation science to ensure that they're studying the right group of respondents. Still others are taking a page from ethnographic research, creating focus group experiences that are less clinical and a lot more like real life. And as research from the 1990s, dubbed the decade of the brain, wends its way into the business world, cutting-edge qualitative researchers are opting for one-on-one interviews and borrowing cognitive science techniques, such as response latency and neuroimaging, to access emotions and feelings that consumers don't even know they're having. Qualitative researchers predict that such creative and effective approaches may ultimately leave the traditional construct of focus groups far behind.

THE SCIENCE OF recruiting

The heart of qualitative research is still the interview: A market researcher talking to consumers in a group of 12, in smaller groups of two or three, or even one-on-one. Of course, the people recruited to participate are critical to the success of the focus group. “The way you screen for the respondents separates a successful group from a nonsuccessful group,� says Marie Joan Cohen, president of Marketing Insights, a Summit, N.J.-based qualitative research firm, whose clients include AT&T and Crayola. While researchers using traditional focus group often divide consumers into groups according to standard demographic breaks and with product usage history as a guideline (i.e., women ages 35 to 44 who have used toothpaste in the past year), a growing number of researchers recruit groups based on psychographics also. “We're looking beyond simple demographic differences,� explains Trenton Haack, director of qualitative services at the research firm Burke, Inc., in Cincinnati.

In looking beyond demographics and product usage history, some qualitative researchers are tapping into the expertise gained over the past few decades by segmentation scientists, who divide consumer markets according to demographic and psychographic characteristics. For example, over the past 30 years the research powerhouse RoperASW in New York City has studied a consumer segment it calls “The Influentials� — the one American in every 10 who has significant word-of-mouth clout. Drawing on a database of more than 10,000 questions, and interviews with more than 50,000 Influentials and 500,000 other Americans, RoperASW uses its knowledge of this segment to help its clients recruit candidates for qualitative research, says RoperASW CEO Ed Keller.

“Influentials are two to five years ahead of the curve in their involvement with new trends and new products and lifestyle choices. They have this bellwether nature to them,� he explains. Recruiting Influentials is particularly useful when a marketer is trying to determine how to launch a new product or how a product's use is changing over time, he says. “We'd never say that this is a panacea for every eventuality, but to the extent that you're looking for people knowledgeable, informed and open-minded, and ahead of the curve, Influentials are very appropriate to study in qualitative research,� adds Keller. (For a review of Keller's new book, see On the Shelf in “Indicators,� page 12.)

Naturally, there seems to be an infinite number of ways to segment the U.S. population, and qualitative researchers are also taking advantage of advances in geodemographics to improve their recruiting pool. As it happens, segmentation science is advancing to the point where psychographic and demographic characteristics, as well as media usage and purchasing behavior, can be overlaid, down to the neighborhood level — and now down to the household level. “Knowing exactly who you're going to get in a focus group is a way of eliminating respondent bias. It gives you a more accurate and more efficient method of identifying intended targets for focus groups, and of learning more about their lifestyle and media preferences even before they come in the door,� says Josh Herman, product manager for segmentation at research firm Acxiom, in Little Rock, Ark.

Last Spring, Acxiom began to offer a database called Personicx, a system which assigns to each U.S. household a specific segment based on life stage, purchasing behavior and attitudes. While databases like this have long been available at the neighborhood level, the ability to target households within a neighborhood is a more specific form of segmentation that should be particularly useful to focus group researchers, says Herman. (The database is updated monthly.)

A case in point: Though the United States Department of Agricultures (USDA) isn't necessarily the first entity you'd think of as being on the cutting-edge of marketing, it relied on Personicx last year. The agency wanted to get a food-safety message out to households who were most at risk of improperly cooking burgers or mishandling salmon. The system enabled the USDA to recruit focus groups from households it believed fit a target demographic and psychographic profile, and it was also able to use its knowledge of the segments to help analyze the results.

DIGGING deeper

Once the respondents are recruited, focus group researchers plan their strategy for getting at what consumers really think and feel. It's a task that has always been a challenge for qualitative researchers — one that has depended on the skill of the moderator, says Kirk Ward, formerly director of new-product development at Hershey and now president of Innovation Focus Research in Lancaster, Pa. Phil Johnston, senior vice president at Cleveland-based ad agency Marcus Thomas, LLC, whose clients include the Cleveland Indians and Alcoa, agrees, saying that as Americans are sampled more frequently, they become more research-savvy.

“As people are exposed to more research, they begin to understand what's expected of them,� he says. Frequently, consumers will simply parrot back marketing or advertising messages, which offers little to companies seeking consumer insights.

To help consumers relax and thereby elicit more authentic responses, qualitative researchers have been turning to approaches proven effective in ethnographic research. For one thing, they might downplay the marketing agenda of the research experience. “What will increasingly happen is moderators will acknowledge the importance of environment,� says Insights' Cohen. “I've always been a big believer in using environments that are much more comfortable and that are more adaptive to the product,� she says. She finds it more effective, for example, to speak to women about female health products in a living room setting rather than at a conference table, and to speak to children in a room arranged like a play area. Some companies are starting to offer researchers this flexibility, she says. INGather Research in Denver, Colo., offers facilities were focus groups can be held that look just like a living room, a kitchen, a playroom, a bar and even a courtroom — and all are equipped with large two-way mirrors along one wall.

Other qualitative researchers are breaking through people's defenses by resorting to subtle trickery. Rather than simply holding up print advertisements in a focus group and asking for reactions — which is not the way that consumers would encounter the ads in the real world — the Marcus Thomas firm inserted the print ads for a campaign it was testing into magazine mock-ups. “We then had the moderator, before leaving the room, tell the respondents that in addition to the task at hand, we were evaluating certain publications, and to take a few minutes to flip through the magazines,� says Johnston, senior vice president at Marcus Thomas. As a result, the firm was able to observe the focus group recruits interacting with the advertising in a more authentic manner.

JUST you AND i

Some qualitative researchers are turning away from groups entirely. Gerry Katz, executive vice president of Applied Marketing Science, in Waltham, Mass., says that for new-product development, one-on-one interviews are more valuable than group interviews in obtaining fresh insights. Katz says that when a company conducts “voice of the customer� research for new product development, searching for wants and needs not yet met in the marketplace, the goal is to hear something new — and group dynamics can often make that difficult. (He points to a 1993 study by Abbie Griffin and John Hauser, published in the journal Marketing Science, that compared focus groups to one-on-one interviews. Griffin and Hauser found that, hour for hour, individual interviews elicited more useful comments.)

Zaltman, at Harvard, is also a fan of the one-on-one interview. He believes that one-on-one interviews are better poised to take advantage of the cutting edge of cognitive science. He's highly skeptical about consumers' ability to report on their decision-making process accurately — or on the true state of their emotions. Zaltman argues that consumers rarely are rational when making decisions, that they rely far more on emotions than on rational thinking when they decide what to buy. Further, he maintains that consumers can't really describe their decision-making process because they “have far less access to their mental activities than marketers give them credit for — 95 percent of thinking takes place in the unconscious mind.� (For more on Zaltman's approach, see “The Power of Images� in American Demographics, Nov. 2001.) In his view, self-reported descriptions of a decision-making process may provide next to no insight into what actually motivated that person to behave in a certain way.

Zaltman believes that smart companies will start to exploit the advances made in the 1990s in physiological and psychological research. Market researchers can now study the movements of subjects' pupils, for example, to gain a window into unconscious emotions, and can measure the lag time in responses to questions, known as “latency response,� to gain useful insights. On the frontier is the use of neuroimaging in market research. By hooking people up to a magnetic resonance imaging machine (MRI) and showing them advertisements, researchers could visually track bloodflow to the parts of the brain associated with positive or negative emotions, or the parts of the brain associated with memory, and get a more accurate read on how the participants are feeling and whether they will remember an advertisement.

This doesn't mean that scientific advances and whizbang technology will put focus groups out of business. Even Zaltman concedes that “there are circumstances where I think focus groups are warranted.� For example, he says that if you want to learn the vocabulary a group of consumers uses to describe an experience or if you want to know about how word-of-mouth operates, focus groups are appropriate. “But you shouldn't use focus group to get in-depth insights,� he says. Since focus groups typically run two hours and involve 10 people, he argues that each person gets only 12 minutes of time. “You can't get very far — you can't get very much depth — in 12 minutes with any one individual,� Zaltman says. And since depth is the goal, the group approach that has been a fixture in marketing research for the past six decades may go the way of the dinosaur.


Back in the heady dotcom days, it seemed as though online polling was poised to make a clean sweep of market research — revolutionizing the way companies conducted quantitative and qualitative research. But although the Internet is firmly ingrained on the quantitative side, the qualitative side has not faired as well. From 2000 to 2001 alone, spending on online survey research, increased by 53 percent to $400 million, according to Larry Gold of Inside Research, while spending on online qualitative remains negligible.

The problem seems to be tied to the dotcom bust. In gauging respondents' emotional reaction to a product or an advertising campaign — one of the key goals of qualitative research — focus groups that were assembled online were never as effective as those that met in person. However, online groups were particularly well suited to examining Web-based business. Two years ago, for example, when Ruth Stevens was senior vice president of marketing at NatWest Bank's now-defunct CyBuy division (she's currently president of eMarketing Strategy in New York City), she found great value in online focus groups. “We were a launch business, so we literally only had a handful of people using our service. But we really wanted to understand what their experience was like. The fact that we could get them to log in from their homes and offices, all over the country, made it possible for us to fill up the virtual room,� Stevens says. Now that the bumper crop of dotcom companies has shriveled, the market for online qualitative research is smaller.

Still, the ability to pull consumers together from all over the country to get quick, gut-level reactions, is not without its fans. Companies are finding that online bulletin boards, where a moderator posts a question and consumers respond when they want — and thus are able to give their responses more thought — are useful, says Gerry Katz, executive vice president of Applied Marketing Science, in Waltham, Mass. Although spending on this type of online research is still negligible today, over time, these bulletin boards are likely to become more popular.


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