Found out at the focus group: data corruptor or happy accident?

Happy Accident by Emily Hoyer
When using focus groups as a research method to explore consumer needs and preferences, it’s common to take a “blind” (or un-branded) approach. This basically means that the company for whom the research is being conducted is not divulged to the participants. When this is the case, it’s important that the moderator, and anyone else involved for that matter, doesn’t do or say anything that will identify the company or client to the participants.
There are a whole host of reasons for doing it this way. There’s less potential for participant bias, as any preconceived impressions of a brand or product may sway responses. Blind studies may also help to avoid any potential sharing of research-related information with competitors via the respondents who participate.
Seems pretty straightforward, right? In a way, yes. But there are other ways to taint an unbranded study outside of simply doing or saying something to divulge the company name while moderating a group.
For one, wearing clothing or carrying bags or badges with the company logo could lead to problems if you end up running into participants in the bathroom, hallway or waiting area. So keep those at the office or hidden from view. When you are in the presence of potential participants, it’s also important to identify yourself in a very generalized way, without saying which company you’re with. For instance, you might simply say “I’m a viewer for the groups tonight” if the facility is only hosting one client that evening. If the facility is hosting multiple companies simultaneously, you can just say you are there to view the “x groups” (“x” being whatever product, service, industry, etc. that is the topic of discussion.)
There are probably other things that researchers and clients should avoid in this context. Here’s one more: Don’t leave anything in the focus group room that will identify your company or client to participants, such as any sort of item with a logo or name, data sheets, notes, etc. 
I recently found myself faced with this very situation. While traveling for focus groups, my colleague accidentally left a small digital camera bag in the room, which happened to have a tag on it with our company logo. Neither of us caught it because it was so small, but it was too late. About 30 minutes into moderating the group, I left the room to allow the participants to complete an exercise. As soon as I walked into the back room, one of the participants noticed the bag. She immediately proclaimed her discovery to the other five participants, which set off a lively conversation about the their perceptions of our company’s brand and reputation.
At first, I was horrified at what I was witnessing. However, I quickly recognized it instead as a happy accident with some potential benefit to our research. The participants, who were supposed to be focused on the worksheet, were distracted by something that I feared could really interfere with the rest of the discussion (going back to biases, etc.) Instead, this unintentional incident transformed the quiet, individual worksheet exercise into a moment of intense observation. This seemingly natural response, which grew out of an accidental stimuli, led to an actual, unscripted conversation. Our client viewers were especially excited, and kept shushing everyone else so they could hear what the participants were saying.What made it even more intriguing was that the participants were customers of our competitors; the interaction would have looked quite different had they all been our own customers.
Instead of intervening, I let it go for a few minutes, because it felt like an opportunity to observe something that might actually resonate more than the answers to some of the scripted questions from my guide. It felt different than what typically happens in the highly controlled environment of the focus group room. It felt a bit more authentic (not that focus groups aren’t “real”, but this is a debate for another day). But, in the interest of time, I had to return to the room and continue with the planned discussion.
I think something “accidental” like this could potentially be used to the advantage of any research project, providing for some unexpected and meaningful insights, especially if executed properly. I envision some sort of stimulus being placed strategically in the focus group room, somewhere that would allow for more controlled timing of the reaction to take place. Participants could be allowed to “discover” that stimulus and simply react naturally to it. Different approaches could be taken, such as allowing the reaction to occur with the moderator in the room (which would allow for deeper facilitation of the conversation), or without the moderator, which may provide different insights, though the conversation might not last as long.
Before I returned to the room, my colleague and I decided it would be best not to acknowledge the incident with the participants in the hopes that it would be forgotten or at least ignored. This was the approach I took, and it worked out well. We also didn’t want to remind the participants of the anonymous viewers behind the one-way mirror.
My initial concern was that the rest of the discussion would be tainted by the participants’ discovery of the bag, but that didn’t seem to really be a problem. Of course, I’m not going to rule out the possibility of bias completely, because it’s very likely that some people had that in the backs of their minds for the remainder of our time together. Based on my best judgement as a researcher, the potential bias should be accounted for in the analysis and dissemination phases of the research, rather than throwing out the data altogether.

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