Focus groups for a new age?

After watching her younger brother David - a self-described technophile - court his Colombian wife by Web cam, a realization struck Michele Erskine: Gathering consumers around a boardroom table to discuss ad concepts while nibbling on cookies isn't always the way to go.

After watching her younger brother David – a self-described technophile – court his Colombian wife by Web cam, a realization struck Michele Erskine: Gathering consumers around a boardroom table to discuss ad concepts while nibbling on cookies isn’t always the way to go.

In July, Erskine left her post as VP at Toronto-based Solutions Research Group Consultants to start up an interactive market research division at Tangency, her brother David Erskine’s nine-month-old tech focused PR firm in Toronto. She explains: ‘Clients are interested in the idea of online [research] and the growth of broadband would support it. The stumbling block has been that [marketers] are uncomfortable with the fact they can’t see the research participants.’

With that in mind, Erskine, who has 10 years of experience in media and marketing research, is recruiting consumers and handing them Web cams so they can converse from the comfort of their own homes.

‘Marketers can view the participants and also [have access to] instant messaging – they can watch and read,’ she says, adding that she will approve each participant personally to ensure they match the target demo of the client. Since some technological knowledge is required, it’s pretty much limited to 12-to-35s.

There are clear benefits to online research: Focus group members can hail from all corners of the country without traveling; the client can observe the interaction from his/her desk (sadly that means no agency biscuits); and pressing queries can be answered almost immediately. Online panels are also more affordable. For periodic access to 10 people over a month’s time, the price tag would be about $5,000.

‘It’s very flexible – you can show them concepts and videos…and you can spend half an hour on one question, rather than trying to pack everything into an hour,’ says Erskine, who says she’ll refresh the recruits of each client at least every four months. At press time, Cineplex Odeon had signed on.

So does this mean Erskine’s days behind a glass screen are over? Not quite. She’ll organize traditional face-to-face meetings as needed. ‘You still need to do focus groups in person every now and then, because group dynamics play a factor in real life.’