Agencies conducting focus groups on-line

The focus group of the future is taking place now and it's fast, inexpensive and draws kids from a wide geographic range. That's the observation of one ad agency executive on the subject of on-line focus groups....
March 1, 1997

The focus group of the future is taking place now and it’s fast, inexpensive and draws kids from a wide geographic range. That’s the observation of one ad agency executive on the subject of on-line focus groups.

It seems that many of the major ad agencies agree and if they don’t already have on-line research arms, they are planning them. Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising runs Kid Connection on Prodigy, Leo Burnett in London has Kidscope, and Griffin Bacal’s Kid Think operates the Live Wire: Today’s Families Online division, which collects data from a panel of 600 U.S. families via the Internet. (A report of some of Kid Think’s findings appears in KidScreen each month.) While many agencies claim the Web isn’t ripe for harvesting quantitative research just yet, almost all agree that it’s a great place to gather qualitative findings.

‘There are still a lot of people who are squeamish about it,’ says Paul Kurnit, president of Griffin Bacal in New York, which began doing on-line research in 1994. But, he adds, his confidence has grown as Live Wire’s results continue to match those of traditional focus group surveys and cost about 40 percent less. Kids and parents, who are handpicked through a traditional mail selection process, are appointed as reporters and asked to log on to a proprietary Web site to critique a commercial, fill out a questionnaire or simply give their comments about a particular trend or brand. Clients can easily tap into the forums from a remote location to observe or even offer suggestions to steer the survey in a particular direction. ‘We’re able to translate all the live behavior dynamics of a focus group on-line,’ Kurnit states proudly.

The research is proving invaluable in new business pitches. Kurnit credits Live Wire for helping Griffin Bacal win Topps, a baseball and confection card client. According to Rachel Geller, senior vice president and international director of strategic planning at Saatchi, its Kid Connection site was pivotal in helping the agency clinch a new piece of soon-to-be-announced business. Geller estimates the program, which requires minimal upkeep, has saved the agency upwards of US$25,000 they would otherwise have invested in focus groups to pitch new business accounts. ‘It’s very good at getting an initial understanding of a category in terms of product, brand positioning and advertising,’ says Geller. It has even become a source of income. Both Saatchi and Griffin Bacal sell the research for about US$3,000 a group.

One of the strong criticisms of on-line research is that there’s no way to ensure its veracity. But Kurnit argues that the same issues exist in traditional focus groups. Saatchi’s Geller believes that the anonymity of the environment allows kids to be more frank with their comments. An on-line forum eliminates any of the factors that may intimidate kids in a traditional focus group, she adds. And even if kids do exaggerate or fabricate their answers, Geller says, ultimately it’s of little consequence. ‘When they’re on-line, they can pretend, and that d’esn’t matter, because it all comes from the same place.’

In Leo Burnett’s Kidscope program, Kate Lynch, European media research director at Burnett in London, says they use the buddy system to enhance honesty. Kidscope is set up in 20 to 30 schools around Britain, with kids assigned to answer questions with a friend from their class. Survey results are fed to all areas of the agency and to relevant clients. For instance, recent questions about kids’ favorite movies and TV programs enabled Burnett’s media department to better position its clients’ ads. Surveys question kids about everything from what they like to collect (60 percent of kids said they collected cereal box toys), to their favorite sports and what time they go to bed. ‘The times were much later than we thought,’ Lynch says, noting that it was something that kids might not have admitted in the presence of an adult. While the London office of Burnett currently shares its research with other offices, that could slowly change. Lynch is planning on setting up a system in the U.S. when she takes over as U.S. media research director this month.

But not everyone is running to the Web for research. J. Walter Thompson in Chicago is exploring the idea, and has a section of its Web site where kids can leave comments. Grey Interactive in New York yanked its four-month-old Kid Watch site last year because it was leery of scrutiny from children’s advocacy organizations, says Linda Ehrmann, director of new business development. Unlike the other agencies’ research methods, the Grey site solicited for kids who would participate in surveys on-line, asking them to get permission with a disclaimer. While the site was up, Ehrmann says, it was a great source of anecdotal information on trends, which is why Grey is considering bringing it back, although in a different form.

While everyone interviewed about on-line research believes in this method, no one expects the more conventional focus group to disappear. ‘I think people feel that the in-person touch is invaluable,’ says Kurnit. Things such as inflection and the mood of a group are difficult to pick up on-line, he points out. ‘As we go forward, we’ll see much more of a mix.’

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