Focus group maestros meet kids on their own turf

As every good researcher knows, if you take kids out of their environment and put them in a more clinical setting, their ultra-keen authority figure radars tend to go haywire. So the key to effective kids focus group testing lies in establishing a kid comfort zone that illicits natural responses.
August 1, 2003

As every good researcher knows, if you take kids out of their environment and put them in a more clinical setting, their ultra-keen authority figure radars tend to go haywire. So the key to effective kids focus group testing lies in establishing a kid comfort zone that illicits natural responses.

To get that type of feedback, some researchers create focus group activities that mimic real kid pastimes. Market research firm Girls Intelligence Agency (GIA) takes the rather nontraditional approach of hosting ‘slumber parties’ in kids’ homes to glean insights on various product prototypes.

With a client base that ranges from Mattel to Warner Bros., the L.A.-based outfit has a 40,000-strong U.S. network of girls and young women ages eight and up (referred to as secret agents) on tap for its slumber-party focus group sessions. But it generally limits the size of these gatherings to five to nine girls since that manageable number provides the right dynamic for maximum communication. ‘Our secret agent acts as host and then pulls in her friends,’ says GIA president Laura Groppe. ‘It’s much more conducive to a lot of chatter if they know each other and it’s on their turf.’

While Groppe doesn’t give particulars about how she prices her slumber party services, there’s a US$30,000 annual charge for GIA’s monthly report on the world of girls called Slumber Party in a Box Syndicated Reports.

A much more classic approach to focus group comfort is offered by New York’s Children’s Market Services Worldwide. CMSW president Selina Guber is one of many researchers who work with friendship pairs – coupling two friends together in a focus group to put kids at ease. But she generally limits that approach to preschoolers, who tend to start off very shy. ‘And we separate the boys and the girls,’ Guber adds. ‘The girls may think the boys are acting silly, or the boys may try to dominate.’ CMSW publishes a series of syndicated studies under the umbrella title KidsTrends, and it prices its focus groups in the US$2,600 to US$3,200 range on a per group, per session basis, with six to eight kids per group.

Still other researchers find that perfecting their kidspeak helps them make the connection. ‘I know where kids are intellectually and emotionally by their age and gender, and I know how to project that into a conversation,’ says Judy Harrigan, president of New York’s Harrigan-Bodick, which works frequently with entertainment and packaged goods companies.

Judith Langer, senior VP and director of the Roper/

Langer Qualitative division of Roper ASW, concurs. ‘I did some work last year with some 17-year-old boys, and I knew I was home-free when one of them asked, ‘Can we talk about weed?” recalls Langer, whose firm charges roughly US$6,000 to US$6,500 per focus group and whose client roster includes toycos and QSRs.

Talking the talk can take the form of such questions as ‘Is that stupid good, or stupid bad?’ when a child refers to something as just plain ‘stupid.’ Harrigan uses a lot of visuals, including cards with product shots or trademark characters, to elicit responses related to such things as brand personality.

The importance of visual imagery was particularly strategic for Eileen Campbell, president of Millward Brown North America, when she once tested girls’ impressions of a boy band. When she showed them an image of two of the group’s members in a couple of ‘buddy shots,’ the girls ‘decided it made the guys look gay,’ she says. And while ‘the claim to fame of this group was that they were real musicians, the girls couldn’t have cared less. In fact, they felt the instruments got in the way of their ability to dance,’ says Campbell, whose company charges about US$6,500 for a standard focus group.

Of course, ‘no matter what age range you’re targeting, you have to make [kids] understand that this isn’t like school,’ explains Ted Donnelly, director of research for Baltimore, Maryland-based Baltimore Research. It can’t seem like a test or like they are being judged. Baltimore does a lot of research tied to ad & new product testing and brand package design, charging in the neighborhood of US$30,000 to US$35,000 for two focus groups of six to eight kids per city in a typical four-city study.

Across the pond, British researchers tend to eschew facility testing in favor of the in-home approach. And while U.S. researchers are required to gain parental consent for kids under 18, the legal cut-off is 16 in the U.K. ‘We also have a freer approach to questioning’ and are more apt to improvise rather than follow a scripted questionnaire, says Rachel Carey, research manager at NOP World, Roper’s U.S. sister company. ‘Whenever I talk to people in the U.S., they say that things have changed, that they’re looser now. But they still follow more stringent discussion guides.’

NOP’s clients range from media companies to banks, and it charges about US$3,000 to US$3,300 for a focus group session of four to eight kids. Entire projects are priced in the US$12,000 to US$19,000 range. One of the company’s unique techniques is to give each kid in the group a video camera to create video diaries (which costs about US$2,700 per respondent). ‘It’s more fun for them, and it removes the adult element because we’re not there,’ she says.

Brit researchers also tend to work more with friendship pairs for kids in the five to seven age range, says Louise Couchman, an account manager at Millward Brown’s U.K. office, which charges about US$1,600 per friendship pair. ‘With kids seven-plus, we do mini groups, but still with friendship pairs,’ she says. Millward Brown U.K. clients include fast-food chains and toy manufacturers.

In Couchman’s view, flexibility is absolutely key – as is honesty. ‘If you try to fool kids, they’ll see right through you,’ she says.

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