VIRTUAL RESEARCH ROOM ADDS BANNERRATER: ONLINE FOCUS GROUPS EXAMINE ADS' EFFECTIVENESS IN VARIETY OF FORMATS

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When Jeff Walkowski began moderating online focus groups, he wasn't prepared for the "Animal House" behavior of the people involved. Women in a detergent focus group ganged up on each other; college students traded crude comments.

"I didn't realize people would sling mud at each other online," said Mr. Walkowski, president of group moderator service QualCore.com, who's moderated offline and online focus groups for clients such as American Honda Motor Co.'s Acura Division, PowerBar and Procter & Gamble Co. "They'd be more civil in a face-to-face environment."

Then he found the Virtual Research Room, called Vrroom, which has an instant ejection feature for unruly participants. He hasn't used that feature yet, but likes to know it's there if needed.

'LIGHT YEARS AHEAD'

"Vrroom has gone light years ahead of what the competitors can provide," Mr. Walkowski said.

Vrroom (www.vrroom.com), a New York arm that consultancy Protocon started in January, enhanced its service with last week's release BannerRater, a feature that allows marketers to test banners or other types of media, such as rich-media ads or even radio spots, in real time through online surveys, which users complete inside a Web-based focus group room.

The service allows moderators to preload questions and explanations and activate a pop-up window to have users evaluate a Web site without leaving the focus group page.

David Bradford, VP-director of Vrroom, said the intent was to emulate an offline focus group. Canadian-based Interactive Tracking Systems developed the system.

While Vrroom can be rented like a focus group facility for $750 a session, Mr. Bradford says it can also provide full-service facilities.

He says Vrroom does "very limited" online ads on selected sites and trade print ads, created in-house. It's shopped the product to moderators such as Mr. Walkowski, who's used it for Acura, as well as interactive agencies and other researchers.

OTHER USERS

Grey Interactive, New York, and entertainment researcher ASI Entertainment plan to use it for their clients. Scott Ribeiro, director of Internet research at Grey Interactive, says he likes the service's flexibility.

"It makes the process a lot easier," Mr. Ribeiro said.

Other online focus group providers include Greenfield Online and Thorne Creative

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