By Jeff Henn

In my tenure as a marketing research consultant to several regional independent schools in the mid-Atlantic area, as well as serving other non-educational clients, I have had the good fortune of using multiple different platforms for conducting end-user qualitative research.  From traditional brick-and-mortar focus groups, to tele-depth interviews, to live online focus groups and bulletin board focus groups, I’ve been able to gain insights and deliver actionable findings for more and more clients thanks to enhanced technology.  While there is a case to be made that traditional focus groups are the gold standard, other forms have their merits and always will.  The things I most like about in-person groups are that they balance costs with number of impressions, and they give clients valuable non-verbal feedback that can be lost with other methods.  From how participants respond to and build off of each other’s comments to the ways they use their hands or pull back from the table in response to a sensitive issue, conventional focus groups provide a richer tapestry for client observers on the other side of the glass.

As for other methods, particularly live online focus groups and telephone depth interviews (a.k.a. TDIs), they can be a nice alternative and in fact overcome some of the limitations of brick-and-mortar groups.  Most apparent to online groups is that they bring together common stakeholders from disparate geographies.  I’ve conducted groups on the east coast with participants from as far west as San Francisco and Seattle and everything between the coasts.  Years ago you’d never be able to hold a group with so many spread out around the country at the same time unless at a trade-show or industry conference.  Even then recruiting challenges would be steep and segmentation options would be very limited.

There’s also the cost issue.  While recruiting, incentives, hosting and professional moderating services for online groups are closely aligned with that of traditional in-person groups, travel costs saved add up quickly and they’re not insignificant.  Lodging and travel can account for as much as 20% to 30% of some clients’ marketing research budgets.

TDIs also effectively extend a client’s geographic reach and enable those with mobility issues to participate in marketing research.    However for certain applications like small sample sizes (e.g. a school with a limited pool of families that have applied for admissions and been accepted but chose to go elsewhere) TDIs can be a very cost effective alternative to traditional groups.  In many cases it’s difficult to cobble together a group of “accepted rejecters” that can all meet on the same day, at the same time, and in the same place.  By doing a series of phone interviews over the course of one to two weeks, we can still effectively gain feedback and insights from a critically important segment within a school’s marketplace.

For Part 2 of this series, Trends in Prospects and Accepted Rejecters, click here.

Jeff Henn is one of two in-house, full-service marketing research consultants at Baltimore Research. Whether he’s running focus groups and in-depth-interviews, or administering field surveys, providing insights for clients’ marketing strategies yields the greatest fulfillment.  When asked what he does, he often responds with – “I help organizations figure out what their customers want, need and are willing to buy.”