MARKET RESEARCH: LOST FOCUS - Focus groups are still in fashion despite a bad press and are now happening on the net. Helen Jones reports

The traditional focus group, complete with a one-way mirror, a moderator and half a dozen consumers prepared to discuss anything from the future of the monarchy to their favourite yoghurt, has come under fire recently.

The traditional focus group, complete with a one-way mirror, a

moderator and half a dozen consumers prepared to discuss anything from

the future of the monarchy to their favourite yoghurt, has come under

fire recently.



New Labour’s well publicised use of focus groups has led to accusations

from political commentators that they have too much influence on party

strategy. Meanwhile, the advertising industry is well aware of the

shortcomings of focus groups - the artificial environment, the

professional groupies and the consumers who will say anything in return

for pounds 20.



But for all their faults, they remain one of the best ways of eliciting

information. ’They are immensely useful to help you get into the heads

of the target audience. If you are looking for how they really feel

about a brand, then focus groups are invaluable,’ Janet Grimes, a senior

planner at Ogilvy & Mather, says.



Focus groups are becoming increasingly popular as Laura Winstanley, of

Winstanley Research, explains. ’They are fashionable at the moment. In

big companies market research has been squeezed financially - 15 years

ago they did big attitudinal studies but now they use focus groups as a

cheaper alternative.’



In a bid to overcome some of the problems associated with traditional

groups, the market research company, RDS Open Mind, is experimenting

with focus groups over the internet. Consumers, recruited via internet

news groups sit at their own PCs and type their responses, following a

strict set of rules which prevents everyone from typing at the same

time. The groups are led by a moderator and everything anyone types

automatically appears on the screens of all the participants.



’This form of research is now becoming standard practice in the US and

holds a lot of attractions,’ Ben Lovejoy, an associate director at RDS

Open Mind, says.



He believes using the internet helps with the recruitment of groups.



’The fact that respondents don’t have to travel to a central venue can

make recruitment easier and enables groups to be pulled together at

shorter notice and across greater distances.’ Clients can ’view’ the

group in front of a computer in their own office, and it is particularly

useful for international businesses where the client may not be able to

physically attend a traditional focus group, he says.



Open Mind is exploring whether consumers, because they are more relaxed

in their own homes, are less likely to be influenced by the group in

general, thus giving totally honest answers. ’Something which is not

necessarily true of face-to-face groups, no matter how skilled the

moderator,’ says Lovejoy.



While the experiment has been encouraging, these virtual groups are not

without their own problems, he says. The first is that currently the

internet is dominated by a certain type of consumer - ’techie’ males.

The second is that it is more difficult for a moderator to control a

group he or she can’t see.



Lovejoy says that his initial findings indicate that while the internet

will never be a replacement for conventional focus groups, it will

become an additional method of gathering consumer responses.



Barry Pritchard, a director at Davies Riley-Smith Maclay, says that he

doesn’t see the internet as an evolution but as a different method of

gaining information. ’In the next ten years technology will have

advanced so that we will be able to see everyone else in a group via the

internet.’



Other technological advances are also having an effect on conventional

focus groups. Electronic Response Systems, which allow focus group

participants to respond to questions anonymously, are becoming

increasingly popular.



Paul Essex of Feedback Consumer Consultancy, says: ’Focus groups are

very good at eliciting deep responses, but very bad at giving you a

headcount.



When a client wants to know what percentage of the group liked a certain

product, you ask the group and they look left and right at their peers

before responding.’ Essex says that using electronic response systems

often opens up new avenues of discussion.



As the number of focus groups increases, so do the number of viewing

facilities. More and more clients are now taking the opportunity to

watch consumers discussing their products.



Winstanley says that this may be due to the relative inexperience of

clients.



’Delayering means that a lot of experienced senior managers have gone

and so it is relatively inexperienced staff that are in control. There

is something very reassuring about a focus group where real people are

talking about your brand,’ she says.



However, Mark Tomblin, a director of the Cold Eye consultancy, says that

this can compromise the validity of focus groups. ’I have heard clients

say ’we have got a 50 per cent hit rate with this product’ because four

out of the eight people in a group liked it. In the wrong hands a focus

group can be a dangerous weapon.’



To ensure that the planner and moderator roles are not compromised by

clients, Pritchard advises that the backroom environment should be

staffed by a professional. ’Clients don’t go to all the groups and

therefore can get a skewed impression or may jump to conclusions, so you

need someone there with them.’



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