With new, largely Internet-based options, marketers are assembling far-flung focus groups and surveying hard-to-reach potential customers-without having to invest in dozens of computer workstations, or wait months to find the right people.
After several years of working with online focus groups and surveys, market researchers say the Internet-oriented techniques are ready for prime time.
"The technology is far enough along-we have strong and stable systems, compatible with all different kinds of browsers and connection speeds," says Susan Roth, director of qualitative research at Greenfield Online, a Wilton, Conn., market research firm. But a major obstacle remains: finding the right people to take the surveys.
Amy Yoffie, VP-general manager of research services at LiveWorld (formerly Talk City Marketing Group) in Westfield, N.J., explains, "You can't really buy a good sample like you can for the telephone. The sources of most samples online are opt-in email lists. Having a person's email address does not tell us anything about that person. And, people change their email addresses fairly often."
LiveWorld, an arm of the community web site Talk City, is one of several firms trying to solve this problem for marketers, by setting up dedicated online panels of the consumers they need to reach.
Whitton Associates, a Westport, Conn., marketing research firm, and Whitton's client, Westport youth marketing consultancy Fusion 5, contracted Talk City to assemble a panel of 3,700 teens for product and brand testing. The teens were recruited through a variety of means-telephone calls, referrals, e-mail lists, banner ads, and Talk City's own communities of young people-and enticed with promises of potential cash rewards.
Whitton recently turned to the panel to test new packaging ideas for a soft drink company. After Whitton designed a questionnaire, it took LiveWorld's technical staff about a week to design and program the 10-15 minute Internet survey, which included dozens of questions and included 75 different images of labels, bottle shapes, and the like. Over a three- to four-day period, 600 teenagers participated. Detailed analysis from the survey was available just five days after all of the responses had come in-lightning quick compared to offline efforts.
"This would've been almost impossible under any other methodology," Lynn Whitton, president of Whitton Associates, says. "The cost would've been monumental. It would've been a nightmare."
Not that a LiveWorld panel is cheap: it costs $50,000 to $100,000 to set one up; additional fees are added with each survey or focus group administered. Typical rates range from $150,000 to $500,000 over a six month period.
But there's little, if any, additional technology costs for the client; like many of the latest online research services, a LiveWorld panel doesn't require the client to have any specialized hardware or software.
In this way, LiveWorld and others are loosely following the application service provider (ASP) model, which allows client companies to rent time on researcher's technologies over the Internet, rather than buy and build these assets themselves.
Anita Hughes, market research analyst at Hewlett-Packard Co. in Corvalis, Ore., has taken advantage of the ASP model with Greenfield's ready-in-a-hurry online survey product, QuickTake. Using it, Ms. Hughes has conducted seven surveys in the last six months on what her HP test market of customers are doing with their printers-what they print, and whether they use the print in conjunction with scanners or digital cameras.
"It took two weeks to write, launch, and field each of the surveys-as opposed to three months for a disk or paper-based survey," Ms. Hughes reports.
Tools like these "have reinvented turnaround time for market research," remarks Chris Todd, an analyst at New York-based consultancy Jupiter Media Metrix.
There other advantages to the online efforts. "With web-based panels, you'll get people that wouldn't come to a [real-world] group. You can do international groups, or groups about subjects of sensitive nature, like HIV or impotence, where being anonymous can be better," says Greenfield's Ms. Roth.
Or you can get consumers that wouldn't take the time to sit through a real-world panel. For example, John Deere, the farm equipment maker, last year ran a QuickTake poll over two-way pagers. Deere's customers-farmers-are notoriously difficult to survey, because they're always out in the field. So Deere provided the farmers with two-way pagers, free of charge, so the manufacturer could query its customers on how they use Deere's equipment.
Despite such advances, many experts are questioning the value of surveys at all, arguing that such "self-response measures are inherently biased, both by who agrees to respond to the questions, and by how the questions are asked," Elizabeth Tucker, director of strategic planning and research at Omnicom Group's Tribal DDB in Dallas, says.
Barry Pitegoff, Vice President of Research for Visit Florida, explains, "The most effective market research techniques are unobtrusive. The quality of the information is richer and better if the person surveyed has no idea what's being measured."
So several technology-driven efforts are underway to observe-rather than ask questions about-consumers' reactions to marketing messages. Visit Florida is using a service which tracks consumers eyes as they look over print ads, billboards, and Web sites (see sidebar). WPP unit Ogilvy & Mather's Discovery Group sends documentary film crews into the homes of consumers for up to a month, looking for marketing clues in their daily lives. Tribal DDB is in the process of constructing "virtual spaces" that will allow users to wander through computer-generated supermarket aisles while researchers record their reactions.
It's the latest in a series of initiatives by market researchers to get the most true-to-life responses from consumers they survey.