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, campaignlive.co.uk, 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
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
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
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.
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?
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk
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