THE FOCUS GROUP GROUPIES: Are they being too polite or are they lying? A species of ’professional’ focus group attendants seems to be leading researchers astray. Damian Lanigan investigates the ’groupie’ problem

By DAMIAN LANIGAN,, Friday, 26 September 1997 12:00AM

Eight out of ten new products fail. Judging by the rapidity with which they are changed, it would appear that most advertising campaigns don’t work either. Both cases are met with the same lament: ’But it researched so well.’

Eight out of ten new products fail. Judging by the rapidity with

which they are changed, it would appear that most advertising campaigns

don’t work either. Both cases are met with the same lament: ’But it

researched so well.’

In fact, consumers are consulted at length at every stage in the

development of a product or campaign. Every week research agencies

develop further methodological refinements designed to get to the heart

of what consumers are thinking and feeling about your brand and its


And yet despite all the neuro-linguistic programming, gestalt theory and

semiotic analysis lavished upon them, brands continue to flop and

advertising campaigns continue to fail to register on any measure you

may choose.

So what’s going on? Where does it all go wrong?

Could the problem be the punters themselves, crowded onto comfy sofas in

research groups in Sidcup, Oldham and Perry Bar? Maybe they are too

polite to tell you that the world just doesn’t need another extruded

potato snack. Maybe they’ll say anything when offered fifteen quid and a

glass of warm Lambrusco. Or maybe they’re just a bunch of bare-faced


This last possibility, although not a comfortable one for the research

industry, cannot be ignored. Respondents can, in collusion with

recruiters, lie not only about their product repertoires, but also about

their age, financial status and even, in one recent US case, their


Sightings of devious transvestites are, as yet, few and far between in

the straitlaced front rooms where most qualitative research in the UK

takes place. More common, at least in the perception of marketing

directors, is the ’professional groupie’. This creature does most of the

talking, offers trenchant advice on trade margins or what director the

agency should use and, before saying goodbye to the hostess, asks: ’What

are we doing tomorrow? I hope it’s not bloody Hugh Laurie again.’ Such

incidents, according to the market research industry, are actually rarer

than the mythology would have you believe, not least because the

’groupies’ have become too cunning to blow their cover so conspicuously.

Indeed, there is uncertainty about the scale of the deception.

Laura Marks of the Laura Marks Partnership, is the chair of the

Association of Qualitative Research Practitioners. She says: ’No-one

knows how widespread the problem is. I think there is a degree to which

apocryphal stories have given the issue far more currency than it


That said, she identifies two species of dodgy practice: ’First, there

is the grey area related to product repertoire. The problem here is that

it is difficult to legislate for product preferences on recruitment

questionnaires. When a respondent is asked if she is a Daz user, then

maybe that day she bought Daz whereas she usually uses Persil.

She is not necessarily lying in saying she uses another brand. There is

little that can be done about this. However, there is another situation,

which is just plain fraud, when the respondent claims to be someone or

something they’re not.’

The ’professional respondent’ is a problem not because he attends a lot

of groups per se, but because in doing so he is more likely to lie when

he gets there.

Prosper Riley-Smith, the chairman of Davies Riley-Smith Maclay,

identifies why this is a problem: ’If the respondent comes into the

group conscious that they have lied in order to be there, they come in

with a funny mindset which obviously invalidates their responses.’

Similarly, he detects a problem that has been encountered in advertising

research: ’Ad research has to be conducted among people who are

interested in advertising at some level.’ Although a statement to this

effect is included on recruitment questionnaires, evidence of such an

interest is not always apparent.

Nick Cross, the marketing director of Selfridges, has been a researcher,

a planner and is now a client, so has a rounded perspective on the

issue: ’The problem has been around for a long time. The ’professional

respondent’ is, in part, a result of people thinking that they’re more

au fait with the whole marketing thing. However, there are more cynical

types of corruption. I have witnessed some opinion-leader research

conducted for an airline, supposedly among yuppie frequent flyers. Some

of them had evidently never sat on a plane.

’The group thing is very cosy and middle class. In the States the system

is more professional and you have more information on the respondents

before the groups. People who are obviously wrong can be ejected


The question of who is to blame is fraught, as those transgressing are

not those who carry the can. Deviousness may be perpetrated by the

respondent, or the recruiter, or the two working together, but in the

current unpoliced system it is the researcher who takes the rap.

Nick Kendall, the head of planning at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says: ’The

responsibility is definitely on the researcher to take care of the


The AQRP has taken notice of the professionalism that characterises the

system in the US, and is in the process of establishing a mechanism to

improve the way groups are recruited over here. Marks says: ’It is

actually illegal to publish a ’blacklist’ of recruiters and respondents.

What we are doing instead is setting up a nationwide database of

respondents in which all their details are listed: name, address, the

groups they have attended previously and so on. This information,

provided by the researcher, will allow researchers to check back and

hence allow respondents to be screened in advance.’

Kendall approves of the idea, but also urges that more thought be put

into individual research projects and the recruitment criteria each


’There are times when you need precise recruitment and you definitely

don’t want ’junkies’, but there are other times when it doesn’t matter

so much. Sometimes, the fact that someone has attended groups before is

an irrelevance,’ he says.

Marks agrees: ’It is wrong to establish a universal industry standard,

because every job is different. The recruitment criteria should be

agreed in advance by client and researcher. It is too simplistic merely

to say ’you’ve been to two research groups in the past six months so you

can’t come’.’

In concert with such specific measures as the database, there is also a

feeling that the culture needs to change. Anthony Buck, a partner at

Calcraft Buck, calls for more vigilance on the part of researchers: ’It

would be beneficial to understand the reality of how recruiters operate.

For instance, does it matter exactly how a group was recruited as long

as it is on sample?’

Kendall also suggests that more focus is put upon the recruiters

themselves: ’I think it is important to bring the recruiters into the

process as a means of professionalising it.’

Marks believes the discipline imposed by the database may help in

changing the attitudes of respondents: ’We need to impress on

respondents the importance of their role. The feeling is that attending

groups is all a bit of a wheeze. People should be aware that if they lie

they could be done for fraud.’

There is widespread acknowledgement of the potential value of a

database, but, as Riley-Smith says: ’The devil is in the detail.’

Kendall also sees issues that need to be tackled: ’A bad recruiter could

lie when sending in the names.’

Everybody agrees that a good, trustworthy recruiter is worth his weight

in gold, and the relationships that develop between researchers and good

recruiters are jealously guarded.

Peta Sampson, a field manager at Focus on Research - the field division

of Research Business - defends the recruiter’s trade: ’Most recruiters

are professionals who would welcome the idea of an industry-wide

database for validation purposes. They are tired of having their

integrity questioned because of a fraudulent minority.’ She adds: ’For a

scheme like this to be effective it is vital that it is adopted

throughout the industry.’

Generally, the advice from the industry is clear: identify precisely

what the requirements of the job are before starting to recruit; keep

your good recruiters happy and, if you’re researching home pregnancy

tests, the respondent with the high heels and the beard should probably

be asked to leave.

Dodgy respondents and how to spot them

The Unnervingly Familiar Face You are doing a group on lager. This

individual greets you with caution and spends most of the group behaving

as if he can make himself invisible simply by avoiding eye-contact.

Either he was in a group you did last week where he claimed to be a

teetotaller, or he thinks he may have had a one night stand with you

some time in the mid-80s.

Advice Try to draw him out of himself, he’s being paid pounds 15 - and

besides, you never know, it could all turn out better next time


The Housewife Who Talks Like Paul Feldwick

There is a certain swagger to her during the warm up. Early on she

begins to question the validity of the research methodology, and at one

point launches into a devastating critique of Ehrenberg and Barwise’s

’Double Jeopardy’ theory.

Advice Listen carefully, you might learn something that you can use to

your advantage.

The Lager Thief

You are standing in the car park having a quiet fag ten minutes before

your BMW 5 Series group is due to start.

A gentleman parks up alongside you in a beige Morris Marina. You are

somewhat startled when you get inside and he’s one of the respondents in

your first group, ’owner drivers of executive saloons between pounds

30,000 and pounds 40,000’. He says little, but seems to be secreting

cans of Carling Black Label in a holdall, apparently brought into the

group for a purpose.

Occasionally he winks at you knowingly.

Advice Think twice before using the recruiter again.

The Eel

Talkative and yet silent, abrasive yet conciliatory, this respondent

seems to be a rag-bag of total inconsistency; bloody awkward one minute,

inspirational the next. Often it’s a struggle keeping him to the point

and then sometimes he just won’t let it lie.

Advice Relax, he’s a consumer, what did you expect?

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