FEATURE1 April 2010

Hear me out: Let’s get focus group participants drunk

Ever had an idea that you know is genius, but everybody else thinks is crazy? Here is your chance to share it with the world of research. This month Alistair Leathwood of FreshMinds Research makes the case for letting focus group participants get drunk.

?What’s the big idea, Alistair?
I hardly dare say this out loud as I suspect that the MRS and the AQR will have my guts for garters, but what about conducting focus groups under the influence?

Boozy focus groups?
Yes, although judging by the reactions of virtually every qually in FreshMinds this is dangerous talk. But look, I don’t know of a focus group facility in the land that doesn’t have provision for observers to have a drink while they watch thousands of pounds’ worth of primary research unfold in front of their eyes. Why then is it usually all cups of tea and orange juice on the other side of the mirror? What makes us think that respondents aren’t sensible adults who can handle a drink?

I assume that’s a rhetorical question.
It’s not like alcohol in focus groups is new. Funnily enough, if you need to find out what consumers think of a new alcoholic drink you do need to ask them to try it. Talk to any seasoned qualitative researcher and they’ll have a story to tell about a booze-filled group. These days such things are the exception rather than the rule, and you can guarantee that if alcohol does make its way in, it will be heavily rationed by the moderator. But is it really so radical to suggest that respondents could be allowed to drink what they like (in whatever quantity they choose) while discussing attitudes towards shampoo packaging?

“Just imagine a group where everyone loses their inhibitions and stops obsessing about giving the ‘right’ answer”

But where does it end?
I suppose it ends with a bunch of drunk people in a room. The maverick in me would love to see this and I do have a hunch that given the right conditions, the kind of insight you could get from such a session could be amazing. Just imagine a group where everyone loses their inhibitions and stops obsessing about giving the ‘right’ answer. We could rip up our topic guides as far as ‘techniques’ are concerned – the respondents would all be entirely honest in their responses anyway. Every researcher’s dream, isn’t it? In vino veritas.

Sometimes, but what about all the showing off and exaggerating? Not to mention bursting into tears and throwing up.
Using alcohol as a means to get to ‘real’ responses could well backfire. And there are logistical factors to consider. You’d have to provide taxis home for everyone, offer regular bathroom breaks and, unless you’re really crazy, you’d have to provide food – a room full of people drinking on an empty stomach will have obvious consequences. In reality, then, it’s likely to be a costly exercise.

And if the cost implications don’t send shivers down your spine, the ethical considerations should.
Boozy focus groups are never going to be a standard methodology, and I don’t see the research associations running training courses on the subject any time soon, so I suspect I’ll have to wait a long time to test my hypothesis. But in the mean time, couldn’t we make the whole process less artificial by allowing respondents to get tipsy if they choose? It would just be one more tactic to try to make the experience a little less alien. I’m not suggesting that we make alcohol a feature of every group, but isn’t offering participants appropriate food and drink at different times of the day about making people feel comfortable? When I go to have my hair cut at lunchtime, I get offered a cup of coffee. But if I show up after work, I’ll be offered a beer. Is there really any reason why research couldn’t learn something from this approach? Surely we, more than any profession, need to make people feel as comfortable as possible if we expect them to spill the beans to strangers on any given subject.

Sounds like you need to schedule a focus group to find out.
BYO if you’re interested.

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14 years ago

Ha! Brilliant... I'm pretty sure most viewing facilities have wine and beer in the respondents fridges as standard now and I DO encourage my respondents to drink, if they want to. I've run some fabulous groups with some 'slightly' tipsy respondents. My, how we laughed (til the bill from the facility arrived. BYO to groups?) But then I remember what happens when my friends and I get drunk...someone pukes, someone cries, someone invites everyone back to their place, someone won't shut up, someone sings, someone puts their fags out in the houmous*, someone dances, someone snogs. Maybe we'd have to include 'what sort of drunk are you' in screeners? But if we're thinking about radical screener questions...I'd argue first to have my recruiters use the screener to set me up on a date**. But that's a whole different article. *yes, that's me. **maybe that's why I'm single?

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14 years ago

My first experience of market research was in Manchester in 1968 whenmy landlady recruited me to a group. I was paid a pound and we sat and discussed a new campaign for Captain Morgan's rum aimed at women with the strapline 'Had any Yo Ho Ho lately?' The moderator had a reel to reel tape and the coffee table was laden with every concievable short and mixer. I've no idea whether it worked as I got completely pissed. But the campaign was certainly launched and ran for quite some time. Wehther more women started drinking dark rum as a result I have no idea. I think the health and safety police would have something to say about this nowadays.

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11 years ago

None can doubt the veaircty of this article.

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