OPINION5 March 2014

The ‘extreme’ approach


Northstar’s Rhiannon Price shares six thoughts on getting the most out of researching extreme consumers.


The problem is that finding a large group of participants whose lifestyles closely reflect the research project in question isn’t always possible, especially when the individuals most relevant to your research have highly specialised interests. Consider the following: at Northstar, we recently conducted research with two groups of so-called ‘extreme’ or ‘niche’ consumers: ultra-creative individuals and extreme sports enthusiasts. We knew that their views would be vital to our research – but recognised from the outset that consumers with those particular skills and interests are in short supply.

If you anticipate that it will be difficult to find a large number of highly relevant respondents, how should you proceed? Perhaps your heart will tell you to work with the most relevant participants, even if you have only a very small pool to choose from. By contrast, your head may remind you of the need to stand up and defend your insight in front of clients and peers – at which point, the sample’s robustness is bound to come under scrutiny. With these considerations in mind, some researchers will give priority to the size of the sample, opting to work with respondents who are ‘almost right’ because there are more of them available. However, will those researchers feel entirely comfortable with their decision? In the long run, I would say, probably not.

I firmly believe that there is another approach in such situations. We all know that the marker of a high quality research process is agility. Researchers should be willing to tailor their approach to meet the needs of the particular sector and type of customer being researched. Nevertheless, as an industry we all too often adopt a one-size-fits-all approach – organising a series of focus groups, recruiting, say, eight participants for each. A shift in mind-set is long overdue across the industry, particularly when researching extreme consumers.

When we were tasked with understanding the worlds of ultra-creatives and extreme sports enthusiasts, we knew that conventional recruitment and research methods would need to be significantly adapted. The following pointers outline the key factors we kept in mind during this important process.

1. Five is greater than forty

An old saying rings true here: ‘quality over quantity’. Targeting consumers who can unlock the door to their subculture is worth far more than playing the numbers game. Going deeper with fewer respondents will give you the nuance and understanding you need. Don’t rely on a two-hour interview; spend a day or even a weekend with your extreme consumers. Watch them in action, visit a bar with them to meet their friends or just hang out. Research for longer and explore deeper – collecting photos and videos as you go.

2. Be the recruiter

Extreme consumers don’t appear on name-lists, and it is highly unlikely that your recruiters’ standard methods of recruitment will deliver the right people. Extreme consumer recruitment works much better when you make it personal. As the lead researcher, get involved. Develop contact with online communities or through friends-of-friends and explain what you are trying to achieve. Extreme consumers are passionate about and engaged with their area of expertise, and so will often be keen to help out. Word-of-mouth is then key to getting more respondents: make the research desirable and their friends will be sure to follow.

3. Screeners won’t work

Each extreme consumer needs to be evaluated on an individual basis, which is why getting involved in the recruitment stage is fundamental to ensure that you get the most relevant people. Work with your client to sign-off an ideal profile that goes beyond basic demographics and attitudinal/ behavioural questions. Whatever common language you and your client need to use, in order to ensure shared understanding, use it. For one research study I completed about a certain type of extreme consumer, my client stipulated that the respondents should all be like a particular character from The Archers. I knew immediately who he was after.

4. Money doesn’t always talk

Think beyond a monetary incentive when encouraging extreme consumers to participate in your research. Perhaps offering a new Go Pro camera, exclusive access to your brand’s latest technology, or an experience day will float their boat more. Also, never underestimate the power of making respondents co-creators. Sometimes staying in touch with your ‘brand advisers’ is a much more motivating prospect to extreme consumers than cold, hard cash.

5. Tailor your research approach

Extreme sports enthusiasts enjoy documenting their adventures online and often create their own vlogs and blogs – so, broaden your data points and capitalise on this by immersing yourselves in their subculture. Remember that if those consumers are using vlogs and blogs out of choice and dedicating time to them, it is highly likely that the most effective way to research respondents will be via those mediums. Create an online platform and arm them with the tools and motivation to interview their friends and take you along for the ride.

6. Consider your outputs

Use your extreme consumers’ vlogs and blogs, as well as the visual evidence gathered during fieldwork to create dynamic and engaging outputs, such as customer documentaries, posters and magazines. Don’t leave them to flounder in a slideshow presentation – that will not do justice to your respondents or your insight.

Rhiannon Price is research director at Northstar Research Partners


10 years ago

Very insightful the point of 5 is better than forty is very relevant when we think about these niche groups. It is really important to keep them engaged not only during the groups but even before the groups.

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10 years ago

Excellent discussion Rhiannon. You get no arguments from me but yes, sometimes it is difficult to convince clients and stakeholders that less can sometimes be more when it comes to qualitative sample size. Also retaining ownership over recruiting definitely leads to more creativity in finding the right participants - as opposed to simply blaming your supplier.

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10 years ago

I totally agree Jyotsana and Donna, we often implement pre tasks to 'warm them up' to the research discussion, but for such extreme users it makes such a difference to go beyond this and ensure you have created a rapport with them. I have done it both ways and have got significantly more from the people I put the time in with before the sessions (I still talk to some of them now!)

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10 years ago

I heartily agree with your points, Rhiannon, and have found myself facing this predicament many times. In certain situations where the client demands robustness on some level (for the output to have resonance internally), I feel the best solution is a combination of the two; the richness of insight gleaned from a small group of relevant participants, with the key points supported by a larger scale study with a broader audience (and narrative to highlight the differences between the two groups of participants).

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