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Focus Groups are a Parent-Friendly Way to Pad Your Pocketbook

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If your laundry experience has been noticeably better in the past few years, you may have me to thank.

It was a little strange when the three women with clipboards and a video camera watched me do a load of laundry. Usually, people scatter when I announce I’m doing a chore. On that day, however, I had an audience who would use the information they were gathering to improve the laundry experience. They were especially interested in the detergent they provided. My machine did not explode and my clothes emerged spankin’ clean. I can’t say what detergent it was because my lips are forever sealed.

For my efforts, they paid me with a tidy check. How did I find myself separating whites in front of marketers? I joined a market research study.

What Is a Market Research Study?

In this competitive economy, businesses and manufacturers are keenly interested in how people react to their goods or services. Nobody wants to wait until the laundry detergent is launched to discover consumers think the name is cringeworthy or it reminds them of the wistful scent of wet dog on an April morn’.

Professional marketing firms are commissioned by businesses to find out if their fragrance is foul or the logo is laughable. To do this, they gather focus groups and design useability studies. Often, they search for a broad range of demographic backgrounds when seeking opinions. Sometimes, however, the product they wish to put on the market caters to a subset of society. For example, they may want young urban moms for a diaper study or middle-aged men for a lawnmower study. Sometimes they want people living in a certain zip code. Other times, they are interested in certain ethnicities, income levels, or education. I’ve seen incredibly specific listings: 45-year-old tax preparers who own golden retrievers named Bailey! Okay, maybe not that specific, but close.

I’ve been a member of several focus groups and useability studies over the past 5 years. Some of the groups were large. I listened to music in a hotel ballroom for a radio station. There were hundreds of women in attendance, rating songs with hand-held dials. Most groups tend to be in the 8-12 person range, though. I have done 2 one-on-one interviews as well, not including the laundry fest. I’m not allowed to talk about the specific businesses or products because when chosen for a focus group or study, participants sign a non-disclosure agreement. This means you cannot reveal what you saw, heard, tasted, smelled, or talked about. To anyone. You are allowed to be extremely general. For example, I am allowed to say I did laundry and used a detergent. I talked about pets. I looked at food serving thing-a-ma-bobs and gave my thumbs up or down.

Many marketing firms have guidelines about how often you can be in focus groups or studies. Sometimes, the clients who commissioned the studies dictate their wishes. If you are a participant, be aware it could be six months to a year before you can be in another group, but I found it never hurts to try. Once in a firm’s database, potential participants receive emails and calls when a study seems to be a good fit with provided demographic information.

What Kinds of Goods and Services Do Focus Groups Cover?

Everything. From consumer products to taste tests to political interests to mock trials, groups are gathered to study just about everything sold, heard, or able to be influenced. Some of the subject matter is a lot of fun. Some of it is very dry. For example, my husband spent nearly 3 hours talking about paint one evening. That’s all I know, because he couldn’t tell me any further, but he did say he doesn’t want to think about paint or talk about paint until 2014. Sorry, two youngest sons. Your room will be staying pink for a long, long time.

What Do Focus Groups Pay?

The clients dictate what they are willing to pay to individual participants. Factors include the length of the study, the intensity, and where the study takes place. They always make it worth your time because they know people won’t block out a few hours from a day to make money that won’t cover gas or babysitting expenses. I can’t get terribly specific, but the money I’ve received has always been generous.

Payment is usually in cash, although in recent months I’ve noticed many firms are paying participants with pre-loaded Visa or Amex gift cards. Sometimes, they will pay with a check. Payment is rendered immediately, unless otherwise stated and agreed upon. They will always tell you what it will pay before you agree to participate.

What Are The Responsibilities of a Focus Group Participant?

First, everything discussed about a product is strictly confidential. The firms stress punctuality and nearly always start on time. Latecomers are told they can’t participate. Many firms encourage punctuality by having an early-bird bonus drawing. Participants who arrive at least 15 minutes early have the chance for a bonus $50 (usually). Another responsibility might be homework. In one study, I had to make a poster depicting what a certain word meant to me. The best poster received a bonus.

Focus group participants tend to be outgoing and extroverted. It seems a little unfair that shy people aren’t getting their say about the warm cookies in a taste test. But companies spend a lot of money on these studies and tests. They want people who will freely share and actively participate in discussions. Focus groups demand a lot of give and take with fellow members. It isn’t just answering questions. Group members bounce opinions off each other and brainstorm, too.

Participants must be honest, not only with their opinion but with their demographic information and their backgrounds. It’s highly unethical for a cookie shop owner to be in a focus group for a competitor’s cookie shop. If a spouse works for a cell phone provider, they don’t want the other spouse to be in a focus group regarding cell phones. This is to preserve the integrity and accuracy of the results.

Where Do Focus Groups Take Place?

I mentioned how one group of researchers came to our home. Most take place in a boardroom setting. And yes, there is usually a mirrored wall where you know people are watching and videotaping. They freely disclose this. There are no gotcha moments. Some studies follow people to stores. They are called shop-alongs. I’ve never done this, which is probably a good thing. If someone followed me around a store, they would feel like they are following a pinball. I shop like one of Billy’s Family Circus maps.

Increasingly, focus groups are being conducted online, either through Skype, chat rooms, or surveys.

Marketing firms that specialize in focus groups are located in every major city.

Find A Focus Group!

The best way to start is to visit the websites of marketing firms with good reputations. Often, they provide a way to register with them by filing out a survey noting your demographic information. Most large firms have Facebook pages as well. For example, Fieldwork, a nationally-respected firm, has a page for their Denver office. They post current studies on those pages. You can pick and chose what you may qualify for. You can see what a study will pay and when it will be held.

If your answers match what they are seeking, they call and ask for more detailed information before extending an invitation to join. They might ask for clarification. When invited, you are sent an email to confirm your participation, along with the date, time, and a map.

If you need to cancel, call them promptly. Sometimes, they have a list of alternates who would love to take your spot. Remember, if you aren’t chosen for one study, there will be another right around the corner.

Get Started Today:


Ingather Research


Plaza Research


Parents Insight Network 

If you have been in a focus group, share your experience!

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson January 24, 2012

    Great tips! I’ve never participated in any focus groups besides online ones, in which case I took a survey and didn’t fit the profile they needed. However, I think it’s a great way to make easy money. It’s a bonus if it’s something you’re passionate about.

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  • comment avatar Wendy A January 24, 2012

    I have been involved in market research for a very long time…it is a great way to make some extra cash. We have a local company here in San Diego that calls me almost daily! Unfortunately, now that I have 3 kids and work, I can’t get Downtown much. I may do one once a year. I have discussed a huge variety of topics and find it very interesting. Average compensation is $80-150 around here. Interested to check out the links that you posted!

    • comment avatar Gretchen White January 24, 2012

      Wendy, one thing you might want to look in to are the online surveys and groups. You can do them at home! Nice.

  • comment avatar Gretchen White January 24, 2012

    I AM passionate about laundry. It makes my heart quicken, my blood pressure rise, and I definitely have an opinion about it. It was a match made in heaven! 😉

  • comment avatar Amanda January 24, 2012

    I’ve done Fieldwork and Ingather – both have been very nice and fun.

  • comment avatar JoAnn January 24, 2012

    That sounds really cool, Gretchen! The only thing we’ve done that is along the same idea is have Claire participate at the university in Boulder in their cognitive development experiments. They’ve called us a few times to participate when she’s fit certain criteria. They’ve always paid for our time, and she thinks she’s “playing games.”

    No, there are never any electric shocks involved. Heh.

    And, for what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure I know a 45-yr old accountant who has a golden retriever named Bailey.

  • comment avatar JoAnn January 24, 2012

    Actually, this isn’t altogether true. I once did a focus group for a company in Denver, but it was just a one-time thing.

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