Focus Group Disaster: A lesson from SNL

By Crystal Markowski

If you’re involved in consumer research, it’s likely that you have experienced some sort of mishap while conducting studies in the field. Last month’s Saturday Night Live episode with Melissa McCarthy included a parody of a focus group that hilariously illustrated a marketing research nightmare. In this skit, the focus group moderator, Roger, leads a trio of taste testers to get feedback for Hidden Valley Ranch’s new line of flavors. Linda, a particularly eager participant, derails the group by making contrived comments (and insisting that Roger “write that down”) and antagonizing a fellow participant, telling her, “We all hate you.”

While this is an extreme example of how a focus group can go wrong, it serves as a reminder for how important the participant screening process is. Market researchers know that a big part of what makes a study successful is having the right participants for the right discussion. And as Linda demonstrated, poor screening can greatly impact the quality of feedback. At On Your Mark, we try to include extra steps before focus groups to help find the right people, and as a result, our participants are typically engaged, articulate, and honest. Here are a few ways we do this:

•    Homework assignments – For many studies, we ask participants to complete some kind of task prior to attending their group. This gives us a chance to review their attitudes, shopping habits, preferences, as well as overall demeanor, ahead of time to ensure requirements are met.
•    Phone interviews – When projects demand high level of articulation, we like to include a phone interview as part of the screening process. Before meeting face-to-face, this gives us a good feel for someone’s energy level, thoughtfulness, and commitment.
•    Screener Questions – A well-designed screener, including a few relevant open-ended questions, can give researchers a better picture than solely multiple choice questions.

If the SNL moderator had implemented a couple of these approaches, it could have made him aware of Linda’s artificial feedback while there was still time to find a replacement. Conducting consumer research in the field is unpredictable, but some pre-planning helps avoid a disastrous outcome before the focus group starts.

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