When I received a call one evening promising $75 in exchange for participating in a two hour focus group, I figured “easy money”. It turns out it’s not only easy money but a fun time if you’re into observing humans and watching the industrial marketing machine at its finest.
At the end of May I left the house a couple minutes past 5:00 pm destined for the office building where the focus group session was being held. Since I was traveling during rush hour I allowed a few extra minutes to reach my destination that, according to Google Maps, was supposed to be 12 minutes away during normal traffic.
I’ll be honest. I hardly ever drive in rush hour traffic (I’m retired). The drivers next to me gently reminded me it’s hell, or at least a scalding hot version of purgatory. Within a mile of my house, my minivan was almost the victim of insane aggressive driving not once, but twice. Where are all these people going in such a hurry? I bet commuting is the worst part of the work day for a large minority of employees.
The clogged arterial roads of Raleigh were no match for me. I arrived six minutes before the 5:30 pm start time. Since I asked “will there be a meal provided?” during the initial screening and was told there would not be, I was surprised to see a spread of Roly Poly sandwich wraps. Not the best, but hey, it’s a free meal, right? I enjoyed a few generic ham and something and something wraps, skipped the candy bars and chips, and enjoyed an ice cold cup of water.
Just after 5:30 the research company’s representative called our panel into The Room. Our group of ten panelists played follow the leader through a series of hallways leading to The Room. The office furniture decorating the room reminded me of every other corporate meeting room in existence. Plush chairs, but not too expensive. Tables arranged in a tall but narrow U-shape facing the moderator. On the table in front of each participant sat a name tag displaying their first names, except Jayson A. and Jason C. who were allowed to include a single initial after their first names so we could tell them apart.
The audiovisual dude manning the camera behind and to the left of the moderator adjusted his equipment in anticipation of the start of our focus group session. He recorded all of us as we introduced ourselves, occasionally moving the tripod to capture each panelist as they shared their name, who they live with (demographic info for the marketers), and what they enjoy doing on a Saturday afternoon if they don’t have to work (icebreaker? or more info for the marketing team?).
Our group consisted of ten pretty average looking guys. Some short, some tall, some slim, some heavy. Three black guys, an Asian guy (Filipino probably), an Indian or Pakistani guy (guessing from his last name), and five white guys. Pretty similar racial make up to our county overall, except there were zero Hispanics (10% of our county population). The ages ranged from about 20 (a college student) to around 50 (a guy that has three kids finishing college in the next year or two).
Socioeconomically, it was hard to tell where everyone fell on the spectrum. I’m guessing most folks were somewhere in the middle class, with a few working class folks mixed in. One guy mentioned wearing suits a lot in a past job, so it is possible he was somewhere higher up the socioeconomic ladder. Looks can be deceiving. The 50 year old that sat across from me could have been an early retired millionaire for all I know. Everyone sounded reasonably well educated. The noticeable absence of any typical North Carolina southern drawl accents which was a little strange (though not that strange since everyone else seems to have relocated here from New York or somewhere else “up north”).
The ladies were in a separate focus group in a different room but they were also a similar mix of people from different backgrounds.
The Focus Group
I signed a confidentiality agreement so I can’t reveal the exact questions we were asked during the focus group or even the product being studied. Let’s pretend the focus group was hosted by the coconut industry, a powerful group representing the varied coconut interests spanning the tropical regions of the globe (surely there is such a thing as the coconut lobby!).
Imagine that the coconut industry has developed a new method to process coconut husks and palm leaves into soft, pliable fibers that can be woven into excellent fabric that is superior (in the coconut industry’s opinion) to all other natural and synthetic materials currently on the market, and much better than the current coir coconut fibers available today.
The first round of questions were general and broad. They wanted to see how we shopped for clothes, whether we look at the tags on clothing before deciding to purchase, and how important the specific mix of fibers was to our purchasing decision.
Then we played word association. The moderator put a word on the wall and asked what idea came to mind first. She went through some competing fibers and clothing terms before moving to the main part of our evening.
The moderator handed out a packet of 30 statements about coconut fibers and its competitors in the marketplace. The coconut industry trade group wants to develop talking points and selling points for its new fiber product and wants to see whether these 30 statements make us more likely or less likely to buy clothing or household goods made out of the new coconut fiber.
Many of the statements made sense, but a few left me scratching my head. I felt like they were trying to see if any of us panelists were thinking critically about these statements. I was the only one picking the statements apart.
One suspect statement was “Along with providing enough fibers to clothe half the world, the fats and proteins from coconut trees can be used in aquaculture and in animal feed to solve world starvation and feed 500 million people.” My response: if coconuts are so good at feeding half a billion people, why aren’t we already growing coconut trees everywhere possible instead of all the wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans?
“The sun fuels the growth of coconut trees. Producing synthetic fibers consumes eight times the energy required to produce coconut fibers.” Eight times more energy than the solar energy that feeds the coconut trees? What about all the energy required to maintain coconut orchards? How do you account for the effort required to clear the land and plant the trees in the first place? How do we account for all the prime agricultural land tied up in growing coconut trees that could be devoted to higher yielding food crops?
“Rayon is a tree-based fiber product. Harvesting trees to produce rayon leads to deforestation and environmental destruction. Coconut fibers are a renewable resource.” “Since when is timber a non-renewable resource?” I asked. The moderator responded that “yeah but it takes a long time to grow new trees.” Guess she’s never heard of timber management and the forestry industry. I’ll have to assume she knows that timber regrows over time and can be selectively harvested and she was simply playing devil’s advocate.
In general, I felt like everyone else took these statements at face value and didn’t pick up on the implications or nuances of the statements. Marketers love people who don’t view statements or claims with a critical eye. A few panelists mentioned that they would like to see some evidence or proof of the claims presented, so there may be hope for mankind after all.
The Devil’s Petroleum
During the discussion, the moderator mentioned petroleum-based synthetic fibers and asked if there was a negative connotation with “petroleum”. Almost everyone agreed yes (except me). Then she asked who knew what petroleum was. Two people raised their hands (including me). Apparently the other eight either weren’t paying attention or truly didn’t know it’s a synonym for crude oil and its derivatives.
Then we discussed whether “oil” is more negative than “petroleum”. Everyone agreed that petroleum sounds worse. I said petroleum sounds more “industrial” and that’s not good in a world that wants “all natural”. Throughout the rest of the evening I heard oil/petroleum being referred to as “industrial” at least five more times once I mentioned it. Don’t be surprised if you see the coconut industry scaring you into buying natural fibers to stay away from the industrial petroleum industry’s demon fibers.
The marketers got what they paid for
Each participant received $75 in cash for their two hours of participation. I felt like everyone in the room participated well and offered their honest opinions when asked. A panelist could show up and simply zone out, shrug when asked questions, and still collect the cash at the end but I didn’t observe that on my panel.
The moderator did a great job because I didn’t think about being lazy and non-responsive until the very end of the session. I can honestly say I’ve never had so much fun talking about coconut fibers for two hours.
When asked how they would get information on coconut fibers and clothing more generally, everyone preferred online media to print or TV advertising. Google was the go to place to search for information. A few suggested Facebook or other social media and a few more mentioned Amazon. No one said they would rely on TV or print media to research or learn about new fibers or clothing. When asked what magazines people read, no one was forthcoming with any names. ESPN? Very little interest in that either in spite of the room being all men (there were at least a few confessed sports lovers in the room).
Would I participate again?
After I agreed to participate during the screening phone call a few days prior to the focus group, I realized I would have to drive to the research office in the middle of rush hour through one of the worst bottlenecks in Raleigh. Next time I’ll leave 15 minutes earlier, skip most of the traffic and enjoy their sandwich tray in a more leisurely manner.
I’d definitely participate again if they call me and offer another $75-100. The pay isn’t bad at $25-30 per hour including drive time (plus a free meal).
It was an interesting experience, otherwise I might not do it again. I enjoyed hearing other people’s opinions on clothing, shopping, fabric choices and their rationales that weren’t always logical (“I like synthetic fabrics today because my grandma said cotton fabrics caused me to get pneumonia when I was a kid because it made me sweat so much”).
I also enjoy staring into the soul of the marketers and seeing how they think. The 30 statements they presented to us provided a lot of insight into how they want to motivate our consumption habits. Appeal to our environmentalism. Appeal to our sense of safety and health by avoiding chemicals, man-made substances, and possible carcinogens. Appeal to our sense of tradition. Appeal to our altruism and philanthropy. Appeal to our patriotism and national pride.
Very few of the 30 statements actually made me want to buy more coconut fiber products, and those statements that did have a positive impact on me related to practical concerns like comfort and hygiene. Most other panelists were influenced by the some or the majority of the statements, suggesting that many are easy prey for marketers.
One guy admitted to a mind-blowing fact. He never tries on clothes in the store. If he buys it and doesn’t like it after getting it home, it goes straight into his closet forever and never gets worn. This helps me understand the “need” for the massive walk in closets that are common in new house construction today. Where else do you store stuff you don’t need and will never use?
I enjoyed the learning aspect of the focus group. I’ve never put much thought into the fibers that make up my clothes and linens at home. Now I know there are half a dozen competing fibers in the fabric marketplace, all vying for space in our closets.
Want to sign up for your own focus group and pocket some easy cash? Head over to sign up with L & E Research (the firm I signed up through a couple years ago).
Have you ever participated in a focus group or market research study? Would you participate for $75?
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