Methods for Choosing Participants for Qualitative Research
Qualitative research can be a powerful and appropriate nonexperimental way to explore an academic question rigorously, as when the additional context is needed to explain phenomena missed by quantitative research methods.
When properly performed, qualitative research projects add to the body of knowledge on their subjects and make the researcher even more well informed.
The choice of subjects for qualitative research involves nonrandom sampling. When using nonrandom sampling everyone in the population does not have an equal chance to be chosen as part of the sample.
However, non-random does not mean that a marketing researcher chooses the participants haphazardly or without thought. Even when conducting nonrandom sampling for focus groups, interviews and observational research, subjects will still need to be chosen carefully.
There are three basic issues to be considered for selecting research participants, which include demographic and psychographic characteristics, a knowledge of the research issue and the geographical location where potential participants live.
The description of which characteristics are important is called the ‘participant profile’. While there are similarities in the process for choosing participants for each type of qualitative research methodology, there are also specific issues related to the selection process that differ.
Focus group research participant selection issues
Recruitment of inpiduals for participation in focus groups requires the selection of subjects with specific demographic and psychographic characteristics from within a population. Researchers may decide that the sample to include in the research study will be based on demographics such as age, gender, income or ethnicity.
These characteristics may be the most important considerations when choosing a sample because the research involves examining the purchasing behavior of one of these specific consumer segments.
In addition, a new product may be targeted at a specific psychographic group based on their lifestyle or interests. Therefore, it is imperative that researchers include those participants who share these psychographic characteristics so that companies can learn more about their wants and needs.
The location where potential participants live is also a consideration when choosing the sample, as they must be willing to travel to the location where the focus group is being held. If participants do not live within a short distance, they may not be willing to travel in order to take part.
This is one reason for using online focus groups so that distance is not an issue. Least in importance is that participants have particular knowledge about the specific research issues.
Focus group participants may be selected by usage level, but they will not be expected to have any specific knowledge of the relevant industry or of its competitors.
Researchers recruiting a sample for interviews will need to find fewer participants. However, because there are usually only a few interviews conducted it is important to choose each participant carefully.
To do so researchers will develop a participant profile based on knowledge of the research issue with personal characteristics being a secondary consideration.
This makes selection more difficult as potential interview subjects must be screened about their knowledge level. However, fewer participants are needed because of the time it takes to conduct the interviews.
Personal characteristics must also be considered to ensure that the views expressed will provide insight into the target market segment of interest to the company involved.
Location is less important when considering the choice of participants. The knowledge the potential participants have is valuable but it is not reasonable to assume that potential research subjects will be willing to travel to meet with researchers.
Instead, researchers will have to travel to interview these experts or the company concerned must be willing to pay for the research participants’ travel expenses.
The challenge in finding participants will be the time that it takes to choose the correct participants when arranging the interview. It is fortunate that video technology can allow direct online communication without travel.
Observation research participant selection issues
Observation also involves choosing participants. However, with the observation, the location is the most important criterion. The observational research will always take place where participants are involved in the behavior under study.
Therefore, it is this choice of location that is the most important decision when choosing a sample. If the wrong location is chosen, it will be impossible to observe the right participants.
Of course, the choice of location is also based on the personal characteristics of the desired research subjects who will be found there. Because not everyone at the location is of interest to the researchers, they will have to choose potential subjects based on their personal characteristics.
For observational research, these characteristics must be discernible through observation. Even then researchers will need to make a judgment call, personal characteristics such as age would be described in general categories such as ‘young’, ‘aged 18–22’ or ‘middle-aged, 40–55’.
When conducting observational research, researchers gain data without verbal communication as it is behavior, and not knowledge, that is studied. Here technology has also assisted researchers. A videotape can be analyzed or cameras and computers can watch subjects even when the researchers are located elsewhere.
It can take considerable time and effort to find qualified research subjects for qualitative research. Some researchers may also feel they do not have the expertise to find appropriate subjects.
This is especially true if the research subjects are from a population that is ethnically or culturally different from that of the researchers. Professional research subject recruiting firms can provide assistance in these situations.
These companies continually recruit subjects who are promised payment for their participation. The subjects a research company may need could already be in an existing database compiled by a professional recruiter. Alternatively, they can recruit participants who will be needed for studying a unique segment.
Constructing a Sample for Qualitative Research
Snowballing is a system where an appropriate potential participant is identified and is then asked to recruit others with similar characteristics. When using purposive sampling, researchers select potential participants that best meet the sample profile.
For all three of these methods, the question remains of how many people should be involved in the qualitative research. There is no rule or formula for the correct number. One concept that can help is saturation. If the researchers are not uncovering any new ideas or concepts, they have probably involved enough participants for the research to be considered valid.
Convenience sampling is used when researchers choose any willing and available inpiduals as participants. This method can be implemented when it is known that a specific location tends to attract the type of inpidual needed for that research study.
The recruitment of participants can then take place in this location as it is where people who meet the profile tend to congregate.
For example, if the research question involves a product used by college students, such as textbooks, the participant profile might describe those inpiduals who attend college. Locating such college students can be accomplished by visiting the college bookstore or library.
Another method of choosing participants is called ‘snowball’ sampling. With this method researchers choose the first participant to match the participant profile. This participant then refers to others with similar characteristics.
The theory for using this system is that the first participant is more likely to know someone like themselves than the researchers. This method is appropriate when the research calls for participants who may be from psychographic or ethnic groups that are very different from those of the researchers.
There are two reasons for using snowballing. Firstly, researchers may not have knowledge of the relevant participants. Secondly, even if they did, potential participants may not respond to an invitation from the researchers to participate.
This may be because they do not understand the process or trust the researchers.
For Example, Recruiting on Facebook? Consider This It is becoming increasingly popular to use Facebook ads to recruit research study participants. However, when doing so, researchers should consider privacy issues.
The researcher placing the ad should be careful to do so in a way that minimizes the ability for both Facebook and a person’s friends to learn that they have clicked on the ad. This is because the researcher may be recruiting on a sensitive subject such as a health issue or drug use.
It is recommended that the researcher avoid using controversial language that can be linked back to the person who is volunteering for the study. For example, rather than using the phrase ‘domestic violence’, the words ‘relationship difficulties’ should be used.
Instead of ‘drug use’, ‘recreational activities’ can be used. Once the potential participant is on the researcher’s website, additional information can be provided.
The reason for taking this precaution is that Facebook uses information from the ads to develop a profile. The person who is interested in participating in the study does not want future ads on the subject showing up on their page.
Question: What other sensitive subjects should be avoided when placing ads for research subject recruitment on Facebook?
When using the snowball process, researchers should choose the first participant carefully. The success of any research will depend on their accurate referral of similar participants.
Once additional participants are referred, it should still be verified that they meet the stated requirements. When this has happened, participants are then sent information on the research study and an invitation to take part.
Even when a nonprobability sampling method such as snowballing is used, the final group of participants should always be analyzed to see if they are significantly different from the profile.
The research question will define the characteristics of the participant profile. It is important that the participants chose to match this profile so that they have the necessary common experiences which will result in useful research data.
If the input is needed from more than one type of research subject, then more than one participant profile should be developed and two groups of potential subjects will need to be recruited.
The process of using purposive sampling first includes establishing the participant profile. Then a list of potential research subjects is identified that have the needed characteristics and knowledge.
Finally, specific inpiduals from this list are asked to participate. Researchers may sometimes need to find participants for more than one type of methodology: it is not uncommon for large companies to conduct more than one type of qualitative research at a time.
The Purposive Sampling Process
Qualitative research is only effective if the right participants are selected. Researchers will have spent considerable time and effort on the design of a research methodology, but the best methodology will fail if the wrong participants are chosen to participate.
Using purposive sampling to choose the participants to be included in a study is a task that must involve both the marketing researchers and the management personnel that have commissioned the research.
The purposive sampling process first involves identifying key characteristics of the inpiduals who should participate.
Once these characteristics are determined, management and researchers will determine the organizations or groups where inpiduals with these characteristics can be found. Specific inpiduals from these groups are then invited to participate in the research study.
The first step in this process is to determine what common characteristics the participants should share. These will include their demographic characteristics such as age, gender, income, and education level. Psychographic characteristics such as lifestyle, attitudes, opinions, and values may also be relevant.
The geographic area within which participants should live is important for two reasons. First, it might determine if the participants may currently use or have need of a specific product.
Second, the geographic area is also a matter of convenience, because if participants live at a distance they may not be willing to travel. The product knowledge or usage pattern of the participants is relevant if the research question distinguishes between nonusers, occasional users and heavy product users.
Identifying organizations or groups
After the characteristics that define the desired participants are selected, the next step in the process is to identify the groups with which these potential participants might associate. It may be that the researchers or management know people who fit the profile, but this would be the exception rather than the rule.
Even if the researchers do know appropriate potential subjects, these are not the persons who should be selected. If the potential participants have an existing relationship with a researcher, they may not give objective answers.
If a participant profile calls for current product users, they may be found using internal company information, such as mailing lists or customer databases. For a small business, participants who are product users may be chosen from frequent customers who are currently known to the owner.
Usually, a participant profile calls for people who are nonusers. One way to locate these potential participants is by using organizational memberships.
An effective means of finding participants is to choose an organization that has members who are similar to those who meet the profile of potential participants. Such an organization may be a business membership group, social or service club, civic organization, nonprofit group, church or sports team.
If researchers have access to a membership list this can be used to invite participants. However, because of privacy concerns, such a list will probably not be available.
It may be necessary to contact someone who holds a position of authority in an organization to ask for his or her cooperation.
For example, a sports equipment business that wishes to target college students could recruit focus group participants from sports teams on campus. First, they will need to ask coaches for their permission.
Once the purpose of the research has been explained, these organizational officials may be willing to provide membership information. They are more likely to do so if they see that the purpose of the research is beneficial to their organization’s members in some way.
For example, if a company needs information on how to adapt products for older citizens to use, members of a senior group may be willing to participate.
If the topic is seen as being beneficial to society, such as why some businesses fail, members of small business organizations may be interested in helping with the research. If an incentive is being offered, this should also be stated.
However, all researchers should be aware that offering incentives can alter the type of people who agree to participate.
Participants can also be found by advertising an invitation to participate. This method is used when potential participants may not be members of any official organization. For example, marketing researchers may need to conduct research concerning how to promote to young people who enjoy skateboarding.
The researchers could advertise at a local skate shop that they are looking for research participants. They can also post a request on a web or social media site that is of interest to skateboarders.
The researchers may need to provide an incentive to encourage participation. This incentive, perhaps skateboard equipment, should be communicated in the research participant request.
Once a list of potential participants has been created, a few short screening questions should be prepared. These questions will verify if the potential research subjects meet the profile determined by the researchers.
The questions can be administered orally and the answers recorded, or a potential participant can be asked to complete a questionnaire.
An invitation to participate
Once all the groups have been identified and the participants have been screened, those that meet the profile and are selected to participate will be sent a letter, email or another appropriate form of communication.
The invitation to participate should provide both the name of the research firm and also the name of the company commissioning the research.
A short description of both the research firm and the company should be provided to supply credibility. A webpage link, social media link, or telephone number should also be included so that participants can contact a relevant person if they want more information.
In the invitation, the purpose of the research should be clearly described without using any research terminology. For example, the methodology and sampling process should not be described in technical terms.
Instead, if the invitation is to participate in a focus group it should describe how a focus group functions. If the invitation is to participate in an interview, potential participants should be informed of which subjects will be discussed.
The details as to time and location should also be included in the invitation. This will ensure that participants are able to commit to the scheduled date and place.
The invitation should also assure potential participants that the information obtained is confidential and that their participation will not be disclosed. The invitation should provide potential participants with a number to call if they are interested in participation.
For some qualitative techniques, particularly those that require significant participant interaction, another step may be added to the process.
If participants will be required to work extensively with projective techniques, researchers will want to know if they will be sufficiently motivated to give their full attention and creativity to the process.
In this instance, researchers may want to hold a short pre-focus group where they can get to know the personalities of potential participants. Only those who the researchers feel will add to the dynamics of the focus group would be invited to participate.
Name of the company commissioning the research
Names of a research firm and researchers
Purpose of research
Benefits of research to society or consumers
Incentives for participation
Using Segmentation Characteristics to Develop a Profile
Consumers are at the heart of the marketing concept and the marketing mix of product, price, place, and promotion is designed to attract a specific market segment.
Therefore, it is not surprising that participants in research studies are often chosen to match the characteristics of a company’s current or potential target market segment of consumers.
The company will want to know more about what this segment of current or potential customers feels about issues such as their marketing mix for current products or about new product ideas.
Organizations can, however, use qualitative research to gather information on those consumer segments to which they currently do not the market. Information from these participants will be specifically needed for research on such subjects as proposed new products.
For example, during a focus group session product ideas can be described and the potential consumers’ responses recorded.
This information can then be used as one factor in the decision-making process. In addition, interviews with participants from a potential target market segment can use questions on such issues as product quality, customer service and any additional services that could be offered to customers.
Because of the time, money and staffing that are needed to design and conduct a qualitative research study, the choice of participants in any research study is critical. This is why time must be spent developing the participant profile.
One method to begin the process of developing the participant profile for a qualitative research study is to start with segmentation characteristics. The main bases for segmentation are demographic, psychographic, usage and geographic.
The research question will provide information as to who should be included in the research sample. However, the information provided in the research proposal might not be specific as to details.
For example, the proposal might have stated that research was to be held with current customers, or with young single professionals who are not currently customers. When the proposal has been accepted and the study is being designed, much more detailed information on the participant profile as to who will participate must be specified.
Choosing participants based on demographics
Probably the easiest place to start developing the participant profile would be to define the potential research study sample participants by demographics. These characteristics will include gender, age, education, income, ethnicity, and even physical characteristics such as height and weight.
Because of the nature of the research question, it might be easy to decide that only males or females are needed or desired. Products that are specifically designed for one gender may require a group that consists of men only. For example, a company might wish to expand their skin lotion product line with a product designed specifically for men.
However, even if the product is for the use of men, if potential purchasers will include women they may also need to be included in the participant profile. The age of potential research participants also needs to be considered. Once again, this may be determined by the research question.
If it specifically asks about the opinions and attitudes of younger or older consumers, then those participants must be chosen with their age in mind. Likewise, groups should be composed of participants from the relevant income, education and ethnicity groups specified by the research question.
However, today there is less reliance on age than other characteristics when choosing participants, as it has been found that it does not readily correlate with other psychographic characteristics as once had been believed.
If the research question does not specify what demographic characteristics are needed, then researchers must decide what criteria should be considered. Even if the benefits a product offers are not specifically designed to be targeted at males or females, gender might still be important.
For example, an automobile company may not be aware of why sales for a specific product are below expectations. The company’s management may believe that the issue has to do with the higher price of gas, making the automobile less attractive to consumers than more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Even when gender is not under consideration as a factor, it is important to have both males and females represented in a study. During research on the mileage issue, for instance, it may be discovered that male participants were unhappy with a recent redesign of the vehicle while females were unaffected.
If a research study does not specify that a certain gender, age, education, income or ethnicity is relevant, participants should be chosen to represent as many of these characteristics as possible.
Researchers might learn (when analyzing the data) what demographic characteristics are actually relevant to the research question. Sometimes it can be a nationality that is relevant. This is particularly true if a researcher is recruiting participants for expert interviews.
Choosing participants by demographic characteristics is quite easy to accomplish. After all, some of these characteristics can be determined simply by looking at a person.
A researcher can determine other characteristics with a quick question about the potential participant’s income or education level. Psychographic characteristics, on the other hand, are not so easy to determine. However, they may be even more important in choosing research participants than demographics.
Psychographic characteristics focus on a consumer’s lifestyle, including their opinions, interests, and attitudes. These are more often the characteristics that influence consumer purchases than demographic factors.
A consumer lifestyle, such as an interest in extreme sports, may still predominantly attract a specific demographic group such as young males.
Their interests would focus on sport, including viewing the sport on broadcast media and reading about it in specialist publications. For these young males, their identity would be based on the values associated with the sport, including a glorification of risk-taking and an anti-establishment attitude.
Consumers today are less likely to identify themselves based on the traditional demographic categories of age and gender. Instead, they are more likely to identify with groups based on lifestyle. Age, in particular, can no longer be looked upon as a predictor of consumer behavior.
Lifestyle groups such as snowboarders may have started out with a specific demographic profile, say young males. However, this demographic profile may now also include females, older consumers and families.
A company would then have to define the population and participant profile based on psychographic interest in exciting winter sports instead of demographics.
Once a lifestyle involves new demographic segments, other aspects of lifestyle such as opinions, values, and attitudes might remain the same or they may change.
Families involved in snowboarding may value the sport as a way to spend time together rather than as a way to display skills. They would not be likely to value risk, and in fact may be quite concerned about safety issues.
Lifestyle can be defined as how people cope with the choices they need to make in their everyday life. This would include choices about their physical environment such as their dwelling, clothing, and food. It also includes the values that develop as a result of family and social influences.
Marketers know that it is a lifestyle that often influences the choice of a product. Therefore, a participant profile for qualitative research is often chosen based on lifestyle choice. In fact, the trend now is to segment ever more finely, such as a segment of people who are interested in a specific style of snowboarding.
Predetermined psychographic profiles
It isn’t necessary for researchers to construct a psychographic profile. There are standardized profiles that are available for defining research samples. These standardized systems have been developed by commercial companies. Two that can be considered when trying to determine who should participate in a qualitative study are VALS and PRIZM.
VALS (Values, Attitudes, and Lifestyles) is a system of categorization by psychographic characteristics and is based on the idea that our actions are determined by our personality. These actions include consumer purchase behavior and brand choice.
The categories are based on consumers’ primary motivations and resources. VALS defines motivation as the guiding principle that determines a consumer’s actions. Consumers’ purchases are made to give expression to these guiding principles of who they are.
VALS uses the term ‘resources’ not just to refer to whether or not a consumer has enough cash to make a purchase, it also refers to whether a consumer has the inner drive to make the purchase. These aspects are then combined with basic demographic data to create profiles.
VALS profile motivators
Innovators – many resources, successful life
Thinkers – ideals
Achievers – achievement
Experiencers – self-expression
Believers – traditional, concrete beliefs
Strivers – opinions of others
Makers – self-created self-expression
Survivors – few resources, narrow life
Market researchers could use this system by first working with the client company’s management to identify which of the VALS types of consumers would most likely be able to provide the information needed to answer the research question. Participants could then be chosen who would meet this profile.
The PRIZM system of consumer classification is based on research that has been gathered from many different sources, including psychological studies and census data. The classification system combines consumer behavior information with family status and geographic information.
The family status information includes household income, family size, and age, while geographic information includes housing condition, housing prices and the percentage of home ownership.
Using these psychological and demographic data, PRIZM has identified 14 different groups with 66 different segments. PRIZM then allows researchers to identify the predominant groups in a geographic area.
Researchers may consider geographic location when developing a participant profile based on product availability. If the product to be researched is only available in specific geographic locations, then the research subjects must also come from these areas.
For example, if researchers are conducting a study on consumer motivation when purchasing a locally brewed beer only available in a specific city, the potential research participants will need to be recruited from the area where that beer is sold.
To motivate potential research subjects to participate in the research, they will need to perceive the location as being convenient. The distance a potential participant might be willing to travel would need to be considered when developing the profile. This distance will vary based on the demographic and psychographic characteristics of the research subjects.
Working professionals will want to have the location of the focus group or interview close to their offices so that additional time is not wasted in a second commute. Suburban dwellers may not be willing to travel to the city.
Certain populations, such as the elderly, may find transportation a problem as they may no longer drive. Researchers should remember that they must choose participants within a certain distance so that they are willing to participate.
An aspect of usage to consider as part of a participant profile is product loyalty. Sometimes researchers may describe the participant profile as consumers who are new, lapsed, or frequent product users.
These characteristics cannot be determined without occasional screening questions about the type of product usage. Therefore, the screening questionnaire must ask if a potential participant is familiar with the product, their level of usage and if they have used competing products.
Planning And conducting Focus Groups
A marketing research focus group is a methodology that uses participant interaction and moderator probing to uncover consumer wants, needs and desires. A focus group is sometimes misunderstood as being a mere discussion group where a moderator introduces a topic and then sits back and takes notes.
However, it is the interaction between the moderator and group members and also between the members themselves that get beyond the participants’ first responses to explore deeper ideas.
The focus group is designed to collect data and not just to air opinions. This interaction distinguishes focus groups from other types of group sessions, such as group interviews that do not encourage interaction between research participants.
Used correctly, focus groups are an excellent method of generating new ideas for product benefits and promotions, exploring the causes of problems or failures, and gaining insights that can then be used to design quantitative research studies.
Focus groups are probably most frequently used as a means of generating new ideas. Product development is ultimately the responsibility of company employees. Although these employees may have marketing expertise, it is customers who will make the purchase decision.
It only makes sense to ask customers for assistance in generating ideas for new or improved products. In addition, focus groups can be used to generate ideas on effective promotional campaigns including effective marketing messages and appropriate choices of media.
Focus groups are also used to learn the ‘why’ or cause of problems or failures. The problems explored in a focus group could be why a product is not succeeding in the marketplace.
It may seem to be a simple task to ask consumers why they don’t like a product. For example, a simple question such as why consumers do not purchase a food product might receive the response that consumers do not like the taste. In the case of an automobile, consumers may respond by saying they do not like the design.
The problem is that simply telling the marketing department to improve the taste or style of a product does not provide any information on what consumers did not like and what they would like instead. In the case of a service product, consumers might say that staff were rude.
However, without any information on why consumers felt the staff were rude, there is nothing for management to use in order to improve. Focus groups will explore the reasons for these problems in depth, thus providing ideas a company can use to solve the problem.
Appropriate questions for focus groups
What do you think should be done about …?
Why do you prefer …?
Why don’t you prefer …?
How do you feel about …?
What would you like changed …?
Focus groups are often conducted to generate a hypothesis that will be used in future quantitative research. For example, they can be used to gain insights that would help a researcher to write future survey questions. While the survey questions about why a product is liked or disliked are easy to write, the answers are not.
This is because there are so many potential answers as preferences vary widely. Focus groups can be used to gather information on the answers that should be provided.
For example, focus groups may have provided information that consumers are concerned about a specific product’s color, size, and shape, and this information can then be included in the subsequent survey form.
Advantages of using focus groups
An advantage of using focus groups is the opportunity they provide for researchers to probe issues in depth by encouraging interaction between members.
In addition, if a moderator is unsure of any point made by participants, they can be asked follow-up questions. Finally, a focus group can be combined with the use of projective techniques to elicit nonverbal responses.
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The major advantage to using a focus group is the interaction and synergy that increase spontaneity. In a one-on-one interview, a participant might place a researcher in a position of authority.
As a result, this participant may not want to disagree or express negative opinions. However, in a focus group participants will not feel that they must agree with the opinions of other participants.
As a result, they will be much more likely to disagree and express their own ideas. In addition, unlike an interview, participants do not need to speak until they feel that they have something they want to say. As a result, inpiduals will find a focus group a much less intimidating experience than an inpidual interview.
Use of follow-up questions to probe
One of the advantages of a focus group over a survey is the ability of the moderator to ask follow-up questions. When a participant responds to a question with a general comment that they do not ‘like’ a product, the moderator can keep asking for additional information.
The final answer may be that the participant does not like the color, size, taste, packaging or cost. The moderator can then ask what they might prefer.
Combine with other techniques
While focus groups allow participants to interact with each other and the moderator, they also allow participants to interact with their physical surroundings. To help gain information, a moderator may allow the participants to handle or taste the physical product.
This method could not be used when conducting a survey. In addition, the focus group methodology can be combined with projective techniques by using video clips or photos of the product in action.
Disadvantages of conducting focus groups
While focus groups are an excellent means of generating ideas, they are not useful for proving facts. In addition, results from focus groups are dependent on the correct choice of research participants and the use of a skilled moderator.
Don’t supply proof
One of the disadvantages of focus group methodology is that it cannot be used to support a hypothesis. Only quantitative techniques using an appropriately chosen sample can do so. Management can use focus groups to gather data to make decisions on such topics as brand names, advertising copy or new product ideas.
However, they should not base decisions solely on focus group evidence. Even though focus group participants will have been chosen to reflect a target market segment, the range of views in a focus group is still too small to generalize to the larger population.
If the wrong research subjects are chosen to participate, the wrong information will be obtained. Even where the participants are chosen carefully, if the moderator is unskilled, the results will be useless.
Results dependent on the skill of moderator
Another disadvantage to conducting focus group research is the effect that an unskilled moderator can have on the results obtained. An ideal focus group uses the interaction between participants to spur new ideas and insights that may not be uncovered if the participants were interviewed individually.
However, this interaction depends on the skill of the moderator to keep the discussion on the topic without leading the participants in the views they express.
In addition, a skilled moderator will ensure that every participant is treated equally. The moderator must also, in a non-confrontational manner, ensure that the group members are respectful of each other’s ideas and opinions.
Results dependent on the choice of subjects
The success of a focus group in producing useable research data depends on the appropriate choice of research subjects.
However, if the wrong research subjects are included the information provided will be worthless, no matter how skilled the moderator. Unfortunately, the management of the company commissioning research may not understand the importance of verifying how the participants were chosen.
They will, therefore, base decisions on the information and then be surprised when their actions are not productive. They might blame the methodology when the true cause of such a failure was actually the choice of participants.
Despite these disadvantages to the focus group methodology, it continues to be a popular choice among researchers.
Combining focus group and survey research
In the past, marketing research was often viewed as an either/or proposition. Either researchers believed in the primacy of quantitative research or they were believers in qualitative research.
Even if researchers prefer using quantitative research, they should consider combining methodologies. Once ideas such as new brand names, promotional messages, and product benefits are generated by a focus group, they can then be further researched using a quantitative technique such as a survey.
This type of two-stage research project uses the advantages of both qualitative and quantitative research by first generating ideas and then confirming them. While taking more time and resources than a single study, such a two-stage study makes sense when expensive decisions are to be made. The cost to a company of a wrong decision can be very high.
Steps in Developing the Focus Group Method
The focus group method consists of the three stages of preparing, conducting and analyzing. Preparation for a focus group requires that researchers meet with management to discuss the research objectives.
The researchers together with management will then develop the research participant profile, after which the participants will be invited and a moderator will be chosen.
The researchers will then use both the research objectives and the participant profile to write a focus group script. Conducting the research involves preparation of the facilities, moderating the group, and gathering the material.
After the research has been conducted, the researchers must transcribe the proceedings, code the results and prepare the report.
Focus group preparation
During the preparation stage of the focus group methodology, researchers meet with management and also staff from departments that have a stake in solving the problem. Qualitative research is conducted when management is exploring new ideas or the cause of a problem.
At this meeting, a broad, wide-ranging discussion on the issues that management is concerned about should be held. The vaguer the research issue, the more important it is for researchers to clarify what management wants and needs to know.
One of the problems researchers may face in the preparation stage is communicating to management that the focus group discussion must stay ‘focused’. Unfortunately, management may have the misconception that an hour-long focus group with eight participants will result in eight hours of information.
As a result of this belief, they will give researchers a long list of topics they want to be covered during the focus group. However, in a focus group, only one person can speak at a time, which limits the amount of information that can be gathered.
In addition, it is important to remember that besides the time limit the purpose of a focus group is to discuss an issue in depth.
A focus group should not be conducted as a group survey, where the researcher has a list of questions and then allows each member to respond only quickly. Researchers should come away from the meeting with management with two to three topic areas at most that the focus group will address.
After the research issues have been defined, the participants for the focus group must be chosen. Researchers and management will together develop a participant profile.
For example, the research question may ask about the opinions of current customers. In this case, the participants will be chosen to represent the segmentation characteristics of the particular consumer segment the question addresses.
At other times, the research question may ask about the opinions of a potential market segment and it will be chosen with these characteristics in mind.
Choose a moderator
After participants have been invited a moderator must be chosen. If a company or organization is large enough to support their own marketing research position, the moderator may be someone internal to that company.
If not, a moderator must be hired to conduct the focus group. Moderators may be professionals who work in a full-service advertising agency, or they may be consultants with their own company.
The moderator should not be familiar with the participants. In fact, it is best if the moderator has no contact with the participants before the focus group session.
Having a pre-existing relationship with a member of the group makes building a rapport with others in the group more difficult. A pre-existing relationship may cause a position in the group between those who know the moderator and those who do not.
Focus group script
The final step in the preparation stage would be to write the focus group script. The script will include the questions that will be asked during the focus group. These main research topic areas will be addressed with general questions that will then lead to additional follow-up questions.
The script should be broken down into the three sections of a focus group; building a rapport, probing and closing. Besides the questions, the script will describe the techniques that will be used to gather information. The technique may be simply a question and discussion format.
Alternatively, the focus group may use projective techniques. A focus group script may appear deceptively easy to produce. However, to have everyone agree on the final script can take as much effort and time as writing a survey form. In the box below is a sample focus group script.
Conducting a focus group
A marketing research firm or a large corporation may have a specialized focus group facility. This facility would consist of a reception area where focus group participants would be greeted. A separate room where the focus group would take place would provide a table with comfortable seating.
Also in the room would be projection equipment for showing any video clips the moderator might use. A table for displaying products, an easel with paper for writing and a side table with refreshments would all be in place.
In addition, the room would contain a means for taping the proceedings. Attached to the focus group room would be a side room that would be used by researchers and managers to view the proceedings using a one-way mirror.
While such a setting is very professional, it is also costly, and it is not necessary to have such a suite of rooms to conduct a successful focus group. In fact, it may be argued that it is counterproductive.
This type of corporate setting is the natural environment of researchers and corporate employees. However, it is not the natural environment of most consumers, and many might find it intimidating.
It is possible to have a focus group in any type of location where eight to ten people can be comfortably seated. If technical equipment is needed, it can easily be brought to the location.
For example, if a corporation wants to study the needs of young people, it makes more sense to have a focus group in a bar or restaurant where young people congregate.
Likewise, people from a specific ethnic group would be more likely to speak candidly if the focus group was held in a community center in their own neighborhood. A focus group with children requires special planning to ensure that all legal and ethical requirements are met.
Because of advances in technology focus groups no longer are limited to having participants in the same location.
They may be held online with group members communicating through typewritten messages or they may be held using video with members being able to see each other while they are communicating.
The advantage of having the group solely online is that members do not all have to be at their computers at the same time. Instead, the questions can be posted and the members can answer and respond to other answers at their convenience.
A focus group consists of three stages. The first stage is used to build a rapport. This can be accomplished by having the participants give first name introductions. The moderator can then introduce the subject by asking an easy, non-threatening question. Once a rapport has been established, the moderator will move on to more probing questions on the issue.
During this portion of the focus group, the interaction will be encouraged and follow-up questions will be used. Finally, the moderator will provide a sense of closure by asking a final question or by requesting some last thoughts on the subject.
After the conclusion of the focus group, the moderator will thank the participants for their attendance. Once they have left it is the moderator’s responsibility to maintain all information in an orderly fashion.
Any large sheets of paper should be taken down and labeled. Projective material such as drawings should be collected and placed in a file or photographed so a digital record is kept. Finally, the recording of the proceedings should be labeled together with the date and the topic.
If the focus group was held online there will be electronic files of everything that is said. These files will also be date stamped. One of the advantages of having a focus group online, whether only using text or text and video, is that there is no need to transcribe tapes.
A disadvantage is that it is easy to determine who said what during the session. When sensitive subjects are being discussed, the issue of anonymity should be discussed before the group starts. Such issues of whether video can be used as part of the final report should be agreed upon with the participants.
Focus group analysis
After a focus group has been conducted, the final step is to analyze the research findings. This is the responsibility of the moderator, as part of the skill they bring to the role is their ability to interpret what has occurred. The focus group proceedings may have been videoed or taped.
In addition, there may be written notes and also material from projective techniques. All the recorded and written information will be analyzed by the moderator for common themes and unique insights.
After the analysis is completed, a final report will be written. A research report for quantitative techniques will have statistics that are presented in graph or chart form to support its findings.
A qualitative research report will rely on supporting its findings using quotes or projective materials. The final task of the moderator is to provide an oral report of the findings.
Desirable Moderator Characteristics and Skills
One of the key measures in having a successful focus group is to write a focus group script that addresses the research question. In addition, the subjects must meet the participant profile.
Lastly, the right moderator must be selected. A skilled moderator will be able to run a successful focus group even if the subjects aren’t as motivated to participate as would be desired and the questions are a bit too vague or too narrow.
However, a poor moderator will result in an unsuccessful focus group – even with the most carefully chosen and motivated participants and the most well-written script. Choosing a successful moderator requires paying attention to both personal characteristics and skills.
Desirable personal characteristics
Successful moderators will find the research process interesting. It is not necessary, or even advisable, for them to be knowledgeable about the research topic.
However, good researchers continue to find the process of obtaining needed information exciting no matter what topic is under discussion.
A moderator will treat each focus group as being important and will be concerned that it provides the information needed by the company or organization.
If they do not, they might not be willing to spend the time in developing a script and other techniques that will provide the needed information. Instead, they may conduct a focus group using the same procedures and techniques that they used last time.
A moderator also needs to be comfortable with and feel empathy for the participants. This is especially important if a moderator is a different age and from a different income level, religion or ethnicity.
Empathy cannot be faked. If focus group participants come from a group whose opinions are usually ignored, they will quickly notice if a moderator does not treat them as equals.
For this reason, it is best to have a moderator with at least some similar demographic or psychographic characteristics as participants. If this is not possible, the moderator should have at least worked with similar types of participants in the past.
A moderator should not only be familiar with focus groups but should also have at least a basic understanding of all research methodologies. Management is often unclear as to what research method should be used to answer each type of research question.
Knowledge of research methodologies will help a moderator to know when the information a company wants would be best discovered through the use of another method.
A moderator should also understand group dynamics. They will be unable to direct a group in a productive direction without a strong understanding of how groups function.
Finally, a moderator should be skilled in the analysis and reporting of focus group data. Survey data can be analyzed by someone who had no input into the design or conducting of a survey. This is not true of a focus group, which is an interactive process between the moderator and the participants.
Handling Group Conflict
The success of a focus group depends on the interaction between group members. There is no reason that a focus group should not be a pleasant experience with the friendly interaction between participants. Of course, not all people have pleasant dispositions. As a result, there may be times when a focus group discussion becomes a bit ‘heated’.
One of the causes of a focus group becoming confrontational is simply group dynamics. Before a group can work together successfully there are always some formation issues that must be worked through. An understanding of group dynamics can be helpful in learning to diffuse these conflicts.
Stages of group development
There are many different models of group dynamics. One that has gained popularity in the business world is called Tuckman’s Stages.
This model, which was originally created to explain the behavior of work teams, describes four stages of group dynamics: forming, storming, norming and performing.
While a focus group differs from a work team in that there is a moderator facilitating the process, this model remains useful as these stages will still be in evidence during the focus group process.
Tuckman’s Stages applied to focus groups
Forming – strangers sit down together and must quickly make judgments about each other
Storming – opinions are expressed which may result in conflict
Norming – the moderator handles conflict by acknowledging the importance of all contributions
Performing – the focus group can now concentrate on the topic rather than each other
‘Forming’ occurs when the participants, who are strangers, make judgments about each other. They need to know how other people in the group should be treated and how they will treat them. People will often make these judgments based on stereotypes rather than knowledge.
‘Storming’ is where strong opinions may result in strong reactions. Personalities may very well conflict, as the focus group participants are not chosen for their compatibility.
During the ‘norming’ stage the moderator’s role is to diffuse the conflict while acknowledging the contributions of all members. If the moderator can successfully diffuse the conflict, the focus group can then settle into a discussion.
Even if at times there is disagreement, focus group members must have trust in the moderator’s ability to handle any conflicts.
At this stage, the focus group can perform by having an interactive conversation on the topic.
Even the most skilled moderator may have participants that never fully participate in a discussion of the topic. However, after diffusing conflict during the storming stage enough so that the focus group can continue, the moderator will strive to have everyone participate during the ‘performing’ stage.
Focus groups using nominal grouping
Sometimes focus group proceedings can become heated because of the topic being discussed. There are some topics that evoke such strong responses that the usual interactive focus group will not work. It is the marketing of ideas that most often elicit these types of responses rather than the marketing of products.
Consumers may have strong feelings about the color, taste, style or design of a consumer product. They may even strongly disagree with the opinions of fellow focus group members, but rarely would such disagreements be so vehement that it would disrupt a focus group.
Market researchers working on issues regarding ideas may find that some of these do elicit very strong responses. Research involving political campaigns, environmental issues, health care access, and other social issues may prompt very strong opinions and disagreements.
For example, if a focus group was held where members felt so strongly either for or against the introduction of genetically altered food, they may either become argumentative or stop participating altogether.
Sexual behavior is another sensitive topic. If a focus group needs to be conducted to get ideas on how to prevent teenage pregnancies, the participants may have strong ethical and moral beliefs.
Under most circumstances, a skilled moderator can prevent or diffuse conflict among focus group members. However, a technique to handle focus groups on especially sensitive topics is called nominal grouping.
Using nominal group session techniques is a way to gain opinions and insights when the topic under discussion may prompt either overly disruptive arguments or silence on the part of participants.
Nominal grouping involves first grouping participants by common characteristics and then having the participants silently list their ideas. These are presented in turn without discussion.
Each idea is then discussed for its importance and relevance to the issue. However, they are not criticized based on merit. Each member ranks the ideas and then the rankings are discussed until a consensus is reached.
For example, a researcher for a community organization might want to gather information on why young people engage in sexual activity. This information will then be used to create a public service announcement.
Participants in such a focus group would be young people who were currently sexually active. Each participant lists a reason why teens become sexually active. However, here the moderator does not allow participants to argue their ideas with each other. Instead of criticizing each other’s ideas, they will discuss how these ideas should be ranked by importance.
Nominal technique for sensitive topics
Have participants silently write their response to a question
The moderator gathers these responses and lists them on a board
The responses are discussed for relevance, not correctness
The participants rank these responses by importance
How do You Know if You Have the Right Focus Group Participants? Decisions on what products to introduce are serious business. The amount of money that can be at risk with a new product launch is in the millions. It is no wonder that companies hold focus groups to get consumer opinions on what will be successful in the marketplace.
The problem is that many people may claim to be an expert on the product just to get in the focus group. One company, First Insight, has come up with a solution to this problem.
They have developed software that can separate the product experts from those potential participants that just want to get the incentive paid to focus group members.
Thousands of people interested in the consumer product category are sent questions that show new products that are in the process of being introduced to the marketplace.
They are then asked which products they think will be winners. Because the process takes only a few minutes and is designed to be fun for the participant, over 90 percent of the surveys are completed.
Later, the responses are then compared with actual sales data. The people who can accurately predict product successes are then asked to be in future focus groups.
Question: How could this process be adapted for products that are services?
Using Technology to Conduct Focus Groups
The traditional focus group is conducted with the participants and the moderator sitting around a table with face-to-face personal communication. However, focus groups can take place online, either using text only or video and audio.
Online focus groups
Online technology is being adapted for use with focus groups. This includes using existing online communities that attract people who have mutual interests to find participants.
This shared interest or lifestyle might vary from a love of comic blogs to the enjoyment of gourmet foods. Online focus groups are very useful when the research participant profile calls for subjects who are similar psychographically.
A focus group can be conducted ‘live’, with a moderator posting questions while subjects respond immediately online. Or, the focus group can use a system where questions are posted and subjects can respond at their convenience. At the same time, they can also respond to other participant comments.
An existing online community website can be used to host the focus groups. If plans are for numerous online focus groups, the organization should consider investing in special software used for conducting online focus groups.
The advantage of using such software is that it has the analytic ability built in. The software will search and find common themes or topics that are mentioned by participants.
Even more important than with a traditional focus group, when conducting a group online moderators should always identify themselves, the topic of the research and for whom the research is being conducted. It is unethical for a moderator to conduct research while posing as just another user.
Often members of an online community are eager to communicate their opinions. After all, people who chat online are a self-selected group that wants to communicate. Using this method can be helpful in gaining insights from groups that would not normally attend a traditional focus group.
Groups that feel disenfranchised from society, such as the young, ethnic groups, or people who live alternative lifestyles, can be successfully reached with this method.
Using such online sites limits the use of demographic criteria as there is no way to control for gender, age, and economic level. Another consideration when using online focus groups is that this method will not reach a cross-section of everyone interested in a topic. Instead, it will attract only those who are comfortable with or interested in communicating online.
This will mean that participants are more likely to be younger and better educated. Another disadvantage is that a moderator cannot see body language, although the online community is quite skilled at communicating feelings by using both words and symbols.
A moderator should have experience in conducting online focus groups because opinions can become extreme when expressed online. In addition, people may adopt a very different persona from the one they use in their everyday lives. Whether the opinions of alternative personas are more or less really is a question best left for psychologists and philosophers.
However, moderators need to be aware that extreme opinions may not be acted upon in real life. There are now specialized tools for conducting online focus groups. In this case, participants come online specifically to participate in a focus group.
Videoconferencing or Skyping focus groups
One of the disadvantages of holding online focus groups is that there is no way to record nonverbal communication. Videoconferencing including Skyping are technologies that can be used to conduct focus groups and overcome this problem.
Larger research firms may have specialized facilities used for video conferencing focus groups. These can reduce the expense of bringing the moderator and participants together in one location.
Videoconferencing has the advantage of allowing the participants and moderators to see each other. They can, therefore, react to each other’s body language and communicate more effectively.
A sophisticated video conferencing system allows all the members to see everyone’s reactions to each other even when they are in many different locations. Another advantage of video conferencing is that it allows products that are the subject of research to be shown and some projective techniques can also be used.
The disadvantage comes in that focus group participants must travel to a special facility where videoconferencing equipment is available. These types of facilities are generally only found in corporate offices and large universities. Not all participants would feel comfortable going to such locations.
Even if they do go to the facility, not everyone would be familiar with communicating using this method. It might take a while for participants to feel comfortable enough to actively participate. In addition, the research firm sponsoring the research would need to pay for use of the facility.
Using video while participants are at their home computers using a system such as Skype is another option. While this would allow the moderator and participants to see other, it requires everyone to be at their computers at the same time.
There may also be some discomfort among participants with videoing from the home computer to a moderator who is a stranger. However, an incentive may be effective in overcoming this hesitancy.
1. Focus groups are a qualitative research methodology that is used to generate ideas, explore the causes of problems and gain insights for use in the design of quantitative research.
The major advantage in using focus groups is that interaction between group members can result in new ideas and insights. Another advantage of focus groups is that superficial answers can be further explored in depth by asking follow-up questions.
Focus groups can easily be combined with projective techniques to allow participants to communicate ideas in ways other than verbal answers. However, focus group data cannot be used to prove a fact.
In addition, the quality of the data is dependent upon the appropriateness of the participants and the skill of the moderator.
2. Focus group methodology consists of three phases of preparing, conducting and analyzing. In the preparation stage, the researcher meets with management to define the research issues, to develop a participant profile and choose a moderator. The researcher will then prepare a research script.
The conducting phase will involve preparing the facility, moderating the proceedings and collecting the information after the group has concluded. The analysis stage will include transcribing and coding the information. The final report will then be written.
3. Much of the success of the focus group methodology depends on the skill of the moderator. The moderator should have an interest in the research process and empathy with the participants. The skills needed include knowledge of research methods, the ability to handle group dynamics and skill in analyzing and reporting data.
4. Conflict can arise during focus groups. A knowledge of group dynamics including the forming, storming, norming and performing stages can help a moderator to constructively direct the conversation.
Nominal grouping can be used when particularly sensitive topics are discussed. With this technique, participants first privately list ideas that are then discussed for relevance rather than correctness.
The Rationale for Conducting Interview Research
Interviewing is a qualitative research technique using personal communication between researchers and research subjects. The purpose of conducting interviews includes gaining insights into consumer behavior, obtaining factual information and developing hypotheses for quantitative research.
Besides in-depth one-to-one interviewing between researchers and research subjects to gain insights on consumer preferences, researchers may also conduct intercept and expert interviews.
Intercept interviews only use three to four quick questions and are given by researchers at locations where specific subjects can be found. While the same questions will be asked to all participants, the method does allow for follow-up questioning. The purpose of expert interviews is to gather information on product, industry or consumer segments.
The purpose of research interviews is to explore ideas, gain knowledge or develop hypotheses that can then be tested using quantitative research. Research interviews use a partially structured approach to questioning. Some of the questions will be asked verbatim of each research subject.
A researcher will determine other questions to ask as the interview progresses. The fact that some of the questions are the same for each research participant allows comparability. At the same time, a researcher can also add additional questions, which allows flexibility.
The fact that the interview methodology may be only partially structured does not mean that the interview process can be treated casually, as an interview is not simply a conversation. A researcher must spend time in carefully preparing research questions if an interview is to be successful.
In-depth interviews go through four stages. However, expert interviews only have three stages and intercept interviews two. All start with an opening phase where introductions are made and the purpose of the research is explained.
In-depth interviews move on to a short questioning phase that includes easily answered, predetermined questions about a participant’s consumer behavior or opinions.
The probing phase asks follow-up questions based on the responses received during the questioning phase. During the closing stage, a researcher will thank a participant and answer any questions they may have about what will happen to the information he or she has provided.
Research interviewing stages
Opening: communicates the purpose of the interview and establishes trust
regarding confidentiality and ethics
Questioning: uses predetermined questions
Probing: uses follow-up questions based on earlier responses Closing: a researcher gives their thanks and answers the participants’ questions
Advantages of using interviews
Interview methodology has the advantage of allowing research participants to express ideas in their own words. The length of an interview allows a participant time to develop their ideas fully.
If a researcher is still unclear as to a participant’s meaning, he or she can ask probing follow-up questions. Interviews are also used for gathering information that can be developed into a hypothesis that can be tested in turn by using quantitative research. Finally, the expert interview is useful for gathering factual knowledge.
Respond in own words
The purpose of an interview is to uncover consumer motivation by allowing participants to respond to a question in their own words. The advantage of this approach over survey research is that the answer is not based on the researcher’s preconceived ideas.
In survey research, even if the question is general in nature, a researcher will have predetermined possible responses. For this reason, it is difficult for new insights to emerge from survey research.
For example, a survey question on why consumers do not buy a brand of breakfast cereal might provide possible answers concerning its price, taste, and availability. However, in an in-depth interview, it might be found that these three factors had nothing to do with consumers not purchasing the product.
Instead, consumers might mention that this cereal is for kids, and not for adults such as themselves. Interviews can lead to deeper insights that might be missed in other forms of research.
Allow time to develop ideas
Interviews allow researchers to probe underlying reasons for consumer behavior, such as why a particular segment of the population is not purchasing a product. If consumers who routinely purchase a competitor’s product refuse to purchase a company’s similar product, there may be a deep-rooted reason for such purchasing behavior.
In-depth interviews with potential fans may be needed to uncover the reason why American football is having trouble attracting fans in Europe, for example. These allow researchers to spend enough time with research subjects to find out the cause of the purchasing behavior.
Interviews can be used to develop hypotheses that can then be tested using quantitative survey research. For example, the owner of an amusement park might wish to conduct a survey on the motivations for attendance. The information obtained will then be used to develop future promotional campaigns.
Attendance at the park is strong and, therefore, management does not believe there are any serious problems that need to be explored with a focus group or in-depth interview methodology.
On the other hand, they do not want to construct a survey form without some input from current customers. They might decide to use intercept interviews of guests leaving the park to quickly gather information.
If the majority of respondents list ‘quality time with my family’ as the motivation for attendance, a survey can then be developed to confirm or deny this hypothesis.
Probe for underlying reasons
Interviews also allow researchers to probe beyond the initial answers given by participants. Sometimes this is necessary because the original answer is unclear. Often participants will use negative terms, such as ‘boring’, ‘ugly’ or ‘useless’, or positive terms such as ‘great’, ‘best’ or ‘exciting’.
The problem with this type of terminology is that it is too general to be of use to the company commissioning the research. In an interview, a researcher can ask for clarification on what a participant means by a word such as ‘ugly’. Is it the packaging or the product design? Is it the product’s color, size or shape that the consumer finds so unappealing?
Once this negative information is obtained, a researcher can then obtain information on how the product can be improved by asking what color or shape the participant prefers.
Ask follow-up questions
Another advantage of conducting interviews is that researchers can probe unexpected insights. For example, if during an interview a participant mentions that they enjoy cereal as an evening snack a researcher can probe for more information on how often that participant consumes cereal of an evening.
The researcher may then decide to ask other participants about their consumption habits. From this first insight, that researcher might find that a number of participants consume the same product in the evening. Communicating these unexpected data to the company may provide them with a new promotion idea.
Gain factual knowledge
Expert interviews are used to gain factual knowledge on subjects that are of interest to researchers.
This knowledge may be about benefits that consumers prefer in a product or information regarding a target market segment’s behavior. For example, a company that produces medical equipment for hospitals may be developing a new design for wheelchairs for obese patients.
To ensure that the chair will be developed with the right benefits they may arrange expert interviews with nursing supervisors. From these interviews, researchers might learn that an important criterion in chair design is the height of the seat as nurses have difficulty helping obese patients transfer from a bed to a chair.
Disadvantages of using interviews
A disadvantage of the interview methodology is that researchers must be highly skilled if an interview is to provide useful information. Because each participant is allowed to develop their own ideas every interview will be unique, making the information between interviews difficult to compare.
A final disadvantage is that because of the time and expense of conducting interviews, only a small sample of participants can be used.
A skilled interviewer
One disadvantage of interviewing is that it will require a moderator who is skilled in interviewing techniques. An interviewer must have experience of working in the social sciences or have past marketing research experience in interviewing.
Interviewees do not always cooperate with the interview process, and may, in fact, try to disrupt the flow of an interview and take control. A skilled interviewer needs to know how to handle these situations and regain control by returning to the topic under discussion.
A skilled interviewer will understand that an interview is a type of controlled conversation and not a monologue where only the participant speaks. An interviewer must not only listen for unclear or insightful answers but also must keep the interview focused on the research question without leading the participant.
Unlike focus groups where group interaction can prompt responses, interviews rely on an interviewer’s skill to ensure that the participant provides the needed information. This can be difficult with shy, quiet or resistant participants.
In addition, researchers must encourage participation while letting participants do almost all of the talking. A researcher must elicit from participant information of which they may only be partially aware or which they (wrongly) deem unimportant.
Because of the difficulty in conducting interviews, skilled interviewers are expensive to hire. However, without a skilled interviewer interviews will waste time and money and may lead a company to accept faulty information upon which to make decisions.
Data not comparable
Because researchers use probing questions without knowing exactly what answers may surface, each interview will be unique. While it is difficult to compare data, through analysis, common themes may be found.
For this reason, interview methodology is often used as a prelude to further quantitative research. Because data are difficult to compare, management should be careful when basing important decisions on data obtained through interviews alone.
Small sample size
A series of in-depth interviews will involve many fewer participants than a survey. Because there are few participants, interview research cannot be used to prove or disprove a hypothesis.
While interviewing can provide valuable insights, the quality of such insights will depend on the quality of the research subjects. Therefore, extra care must be taken to ensure that the interview subjects meet the participant profile.
Types of Interviews
The choice of marketing research interviewing methodologies includes in-depth interviews. With this technique, a researcher spends most of the interview exploring consumer motivation and behavior.
Expert interviews are used to gather information from people who are not necessarily direct consumers of a specific product, but have knowledge of either that product and industry or the needs and wants of the market segment that is being targeted.
Intercept interviews are short person-on-the-street interviews that only ask a few predetermined questions. This information can be used to develop hypotheses that can then be proved or disproved by using quantitative research.
Types of interviews
In-depth: one-to-one on a single topic for an extended period
Expert: with someone, other than the research subject to obtaining facts
Interceptor person-on-the-street: short interviews with many participants
In-depth interviews are conducted between an interviewer and a single participant. The interview is partially structured with some of the questions being predetermined. These questions are written by researchers and based on the research question.
A researcher will ask other questions based on the information provided by the participants during the interviews. In-depth interviews usually last a little under an hour and go through four phases: opening, questioning, probing and closing.
During the ‘opening’ phase an interviewer will explain to a participant the purpose of the research. Once this is concluded the research will move to the ‘questioning’ phase. The questions will start by being very general in nature and then will move on to more specific information.
For example, if an interviewer is discussing breakfast cereal the opening question will be if the participant eats cereal. Asking this type of question will establish the purpose of the research while at the same giving the participant an easy question to answer.
The interviewer will then ask predetermined questions about brand preference and move on to more probing questions regarding why the participant chooses this particular brand.
The interviewer will then ask additional probing questions to ensure that the information the participant has provided has been correctly understood. Finally, a researcher will close the interview by thanking the participant and asking if they have any questions.
Sometimes research questions will touch on sensitive issues. Some industries, such as health care, assisted living for the elderly or organizations that work with the disabled, often need to conduct research that asks participants questions about difficult times in their lives.
Interviewers for these types of research projects need to have special training so that the research does not leave any emotional scars. A research study conducted in Britain found that if it were conducted with sensitivity, research participants may find the interview process therapeutic rather than harmful.
Expert interviews are usually conducted early on in the research process as a means of clarifying a research problem. They can also be used to gather data during research, but only in combination with other research methods.
An expert interview is conducted to gather factual information about a problem with someone with a specific product, consumer or industry knowledge. Because this expert is usually a busy professional, the time for an interview is kept as short as possible.
The expert interview consists of only two phases of opening and questioning. Because the purpose of the interview is to gain factual information and not the underlying causes of behavior, probing is not used. This also allows for the interview to be conducted in a shorter time.
In the breakfast cereal example above, during the early stages of the research process researchers might wish to conduct expert interviews with grocery store managers.
The managers can provide information on what cereals have sold well in the past and the current sales trends. In addition, researchers may wish to conduct expert interviews with nutritionists regarding current consumer eating habits.
During the research process, expert interviews might also be conducted among people involved in the distribution process and the development of promotion.
If the research uncovers that package size is an issue, the researchers should discuss with distribution experts what reaction would be received if the company involved produced unique packaging that would require a modification to shelf space.
If an issue involves a new promotion idea, such as marketing cereal for evening consumption, researchers may wish to interview advertising agency managers to see if they have handled such a unique product repositioning promotion for other clients.
Person-on-the-street interviews also ask open-ended questions. In this case, though the interview is kept very short. An intercept interview should only take a few minutes and is therefore limited to three or four questions. The participants are chosen and interviewed at the location where they can be found.
This technique is often used when the subjects needed for the research are unwilling to agree to an in-depth interview. Because the interviews take a short period of time, many more can be conducted.
However, the short time period for person-on-the-street interviews means that there isn’t time for in-depth probing questions. Interviewers used for this type of interview do not need the same level of technical skill.
Instead, it is more important that the potential participants view the interviewer as someone who is friendly and approachable.
For breakfast cereal preferences, intercept interviews might take place wherever a target market segment congregates. If working adults are the target market segment, the interviews might take place outside an office building. If families are the target, the interviews might take place at a shopping center or grocery store.
Types of interview questions include descriptive, causal, consequence and non-directional. Descriptive questions ask for facts concerning behavior. Such questions are usually both easy to ask and easy to answer.
Causal questions ask research subjects to think about why a certain behavior takes place. These questions ask for underlying motivations and take more time and thought to answer.
Even more difficult are consequence questions. These types of question ask research subjects to construct a hypothetical example in their mind and to then respond on how they would act. Non-directional questions ask research participants to determine if there is a relationship between two facts.
Many of the early questions used during an interview will be descriptive. These types of questions ask participants to describe their consumer behavior.
Because these are factual they are both easy for researchers to ask and easy for participants to answer. An example of a descriptive question would be ‘How often to do you go shoe shopping?’
If an interview only consisted of these types of questions, an interview, which is both expensive and time-consuming, would not be necessary. Such descriptive data could be easily obtained by using a survey form.
Descriptive questions: ask for facts
How often do you shop for shoes?
When do you shop for shoes?
How much money do you spend on shoes?
Causal questions address how one variable acts upon another. For example, if the research question is ‘What motivates women to shop frequently for shoes?’, the first descriptive questions would address the facts about shoe shopping. The participants will first be asked how often they go shopping, when they go shopping and how much they spend.
The causal questions will then address the motivation for shopping. In this case, the research subject has already been identified as a frequent shoe shopper.
The causal question can be asked as an open-ended question, such as ‘Why do you frequently shop for shoes?’ or the question may be phrased using a suggested cause, such as ‘Do you shop for shoes when you are depressed?’
The interviewer could then move on to other suggested causes, such as stress, relationship problems or an active social life.
Casual questions: ask for reasons that behavior exists
Why do you shop for shoes?
Do you shop for shoes when you are depressed?
Do you shop for shoes as a result of difficulties at work?
A consequence question will address behavior by a shopper that results from the frequent shopping behavior. Once again, an open-ended question could be asked regarding how subjects feel after they have finished shopping.
Or alternatively, the question can provide a suggested answer by asking ‘Do you feel relaxed after you have finished shopping?’ These questions would provide information on the intangible benefits provided by shopping that cause the behavior.
Consequence questions: what happens as the result of a behavior?
How do you feel after shopping for shoes?
Do you feel relaxed after shopping?
A non-directional relationship question asks whether two variables are related. The question is asked without implying either a positive or negative aspect to such a relationship. An interviewer may want to know if frequent shoe shoppers read many fashion magazines or have many family responsibilities.
There is no clear direction to these questions because the researcher will still not know if reading magazines cause people to buy shoes, as people who read about shoes may not necessarily feel a need to buy them.
In addition, some people who read magazines may feel the need to purchase what they see. Here all that will be known is that a relationship does exist. Further research will be needed to prove this relationship.
Non-directional relationship question: are two variables related?
Do you frequently read fashion magazines?
Do you have many family responsibilities?
Because interviews are a qualitative process, it can sometimes be forgotten that as much care should be taken when selecting participants who fit the profile as when designing a sample for a quantitative survey.
It is true that it is generally more difficult to have a potential participant agree to an interview than a survey because of the time involved. Therefore, researchers may be tempted to focus more on who is willing to be interviewed rather than who fits the profile.
Unfortunately, if the research subjects for interviews are not carefully selected, both time and money will be wasted.
A willing, but inappropriate participant will result in not obtaining the needed information and the interview will be wasted. A company’s management along with researchers will have to meet to determine a participant profile.
First, they must decide if they want to interview current customers, potential customers or both. They must then decide on the demographic and psychographic profile of the subjects.
The profile should be very specific and the researchers involved should explain to management if extra time will be needed to recruit appropriate research subjects.
It is important when conducting in-depth interviews that the profile must be very specific. It might focus on only one of the segmentation characteristics, or two, or all three can be used in combination to describe appropriate research subjects. To find potential participants who meet this profile a short questionnaire must be developed.
The screening questionnaire can be administered in person, over the phone, or online. Only participants who have the needed characteristics that match the participant profile will be invited to participate in the research.
A researcher should not provide information to potential participants on what specific characteristics are necessary to be chosen. If they do so, some potential participants might be tempted to answer so they will be chosen, even if they are not appropriate subjects.
For on-the-street interviews, a participant profile will be provided for interviewers. By using the profile, an interviewer will need to ask a single screening question.
Sample participant profile for intercept interviews
Not with young children
Dressed in a style that suggests the person has money for clothes (most likely employed)
Dressed informally (not too fussy about appearance)
When a potential subject is identified, a researcher will then ask a single screening question, such as ‘Do you eat cereal?’ This method is not as scientific as the screening questionnaire used for an in-depth interview.
The reason a full screening does not take place is that potential participants will normally not be willing to provide such information to a complete stranger on the street.
However, because more interviews are conducted, there can be less emphasis placed on each participant exactly meeting the participant profile. The example below shows how the research was used to discover the reading preferences of young people.
Participants for expert interviews are usually chosen on the basis of referrals. Using this method, researchers may be tempted to rely only on people they know in order to save time.
Instead, researchers should ask the management of a company commissioning research for the names of people who would have knowledge of the subject being researched.
These experts might work in the industry under study, such as the cereal industry. They may also be experts on a specific consumer target market segment, such as young men, or be expert on a specific product type, such as breakfast foods.
One of the major responsibilities of an interviewer will be writing the questions for in-depth, expert and intercept interviews. The questions should be of the correct type and provide the information needed to answer a research question and its objectives.
However, there are some general rules researchers should follow so that all such questions will be well written and clearly communicated.
After a researcher has written the interview questions they will need to be tested before they are used in research.
General rules on writing questions
Of course, the rule here is that researchers should write the questions that address a research issue. In addition to the questions being grammatically well written, there are some guidelines that will help researchers to write good interview questions.
First, researchers should only ask questions that the participants have the knowledge to answer, should write questions so that they address only one issue at a time, and should a use language and style that will be understood by all participants.
Questions that can be answered
Researchers should always remember one of the most important guidelines when writing questions, which is to never ask a question that a research participant does not have the knowledge to answer.
This guideline may seem self-evident. However, researchers in their quest for information may write questions without considering if the research subjects have the required knowledge to answer these.
Participants can only know what they have learned or what they have experienced. However, they may still try to answer other questions simply to be helpful. Therefore, if a researcher asks questions about experiences they have not had or products that they have not used, participants can only answer hypothetically.
For example, a researcher may ask participants if they would use a new product if it were available. However, the company client should carefully consider whether to base future action on the answers they receive. This is because it is difficult for people to be accurate when they try to predict the future.
It would be much better to ask about the specific qualities participants desire in a product, as they can than refer back to previous real experiences. Researchers can then analyze this information and make recommendations about products that should be introduced in the future.
One question at a time
Another important guideline for researchers to remember when writing questions is to only ask one question at a time. Any more than this will prove confusing for participants to answer. It may also confuse the researcher concerned, who will not know if the answer was to the first or second question.
A question such as ‘How did you choose your last vacation destination and did you enjoy the trip?’ is too complicated for easy response. It can also make an analysis of the data more difficult if a participant had had a difficult time choosing their destination (unhappy response) but enjoyed the trip (happy response).
Write in the words and style of participants
Market researchers, because they have similar educational backgrounds, most often communicate with each other using the same educational level of English and similar vocabulary.
Written language is also often more formal than spoken language. Therefore, the questions researchers write must be ‘translated’ into the everyday language of participants so they do not sound stilted when asked.
This translation will not only include terminology but also grammar, the length of a sentence or question, and sentence structure. Researchers should be familiar with how the targeted participants use language.
This would include any jargon that is used by younger people or by persons from minority ethnic groups. The use of their own language when writing questions will not only help in communication, it will help in establishing legitimacy and trust.
It is not possible to run sample interviews to test questions because it takes too much time. However, it is still important to test the questions that will be used in an interview for the use of jargon, clarity, and appropriateness. One way to do so is to first have a potential participant listen to a researcher read through the questions.
The researcher should then ask if there are any words that were not understood. Second, the researcher should ask the listener to rephrase the question in their own words. Third, they should ask the listener if they would be willing to answer the question.
This test allows researchers to replace any words that are not understood. If terminology needs to be included, researchers can provide an explanation within the question itself.
Asking the listener to repeat the question is another test to see if a question communicates the topic clearly. It may also provide researchers with alternative wordings that they may want to incorporate.
Finally, asking a test participant if they would be willing and able to answer a question provides information on whether a topic is too sensitive to be easily answered.
Location of interviews
The type of interview research being conducted will dictate its location. In-depth interviews should be held at a location that is free from distractions so that both the researcher and the participant can concentrate on the issue.
Locations, where an interview can be conducted, including at a researcher’s office, in a participant’s home, or by telephone. Expert interviews are held at locations that will be as convenient as possible for participants.
These interviews could be conducted at a participant’s place of employment, over dinner or lunch, on the phone or online. Intercept interviews are held where the participants can be found.
This might be at a location such as a store or business. In addition, an intercept interview might be conducted in a public place where potential participants may congregate.
In-depth interview location
There are two choices of locations where in-depth interviews can be conducted – either at a researcher’s office or in a participant’s home. In addition, in-depth interviews can be conducted over the telephone or online using a program such as Skype.
Choice of location is more than just a matter of convenience and can affect the outcome of an interview. Therefore a participant should be allowed to have an input into the choice of location for the interview because when they feel comfortable they will feel freer to communicate.
Intercept interviews location
An intercept interview can be conducted at the store or business where the consumer behavior under study takes place. They can also take place in public places where likely participants tend to congregate.
When conducting intercept interviews, interviewers should station themselves somewhere out of the main flow of people traffic when the questions are asked so as not to antagonize the management of a business.
Expert interviews location
An expert interview will often take place in a participant’s place of employment.
If this is not possible, such interviews can also be conducted over the telephone.
In addition, online interviewing is appropriate for conducting expert interviews.
1. Interview research can be conducted to explore ideas, to obtain factual knowledge and to gather information that can be used in developing hypotheses that will be tested using quantitative research.
The advantages of using an interview research methodology include discovering the underlying reasons for consumer behavior, allowing participants to respond in their own words and the fact that researchers can follow up unclear answers with further probing questions.
The disadvantages include fewer participants being involved, the need for a skilled interviewer, and the fact that each interview is unique which makes comparisons of data difficult.
2. Interviews can be in-depth where topics are explored for an extended period. Intercept interviews are short but are conducted with many participants. Expert interviews are used to gather facts.
All types of interviews use predetermined questions. However, only in-depth interviews use unstructured questions to probe more deeply into issues.
3. Interview questions can be descriptive, asking participants to describe behavior. Causal interview questions try to determine the effect of one variable by asking about the ‘Why’ of certain behavior.
These questions will take more time and thought to answer. Consequence questions try to determine what happens as the result of behavior. Non-directional questions ask about the relationship between two variables.
4. When screening potential participants for in-depth interviews a profile should be very specific as to usage, demographic and psychographic characteristics.
A screening questionnaire will be developed for this purpose. For intercept interviews, a sample profile will be developed that will rely on visible demographic characteristics.
The only important consideration for expert interviews is that participants have the required knowledge about a specific industry, consumer segment or product type.
5. Interview questions should only ask what participants can answer and should only allow for one question at a time. In addition, questions should be put into words and phrases that will be familiar to participants.
Finally, any questions should be tested. The type of interview will partially determine the location where it should be held.