Introduction to Telephone Focus Groups

  • SumoMe

I know that you want to get right into the nuts and bolts of how to use telephone focus groups. But I thought that you’d enjoy it – and get a deeper understanding – if I first told you about how I developed this technique.

If you’re one of those people who wants to get right into the machinery, just skip to the next section, frequently asked questions about Telephone Focus Groups..

I ran my first telephone groups in 1969. Ron Richards – then President of TeleSession Corp. and now a marketing consultant and president of Venture Network in San Francisco – and I were trying to develop a way to bring people together so that they could learn from each other, instead of from more formal education from teachers. This is called peer learning. I was Executive Vice President of the company and also a practicing psychotherapist. I had been a school psychologist, and had extensive training in Group Dynamics, a field of study which had just come into its own in the 1960’s. That was the time of the encounter group, the sensitivity training group and the T-group, among others. Everything in those days was attempted in groups, and I do mean everything. A great deal was learned at the time about how groups work, how to create the right atmosphere for participation, and how to interpret what was going on in groups.

Our advertising agency ran several focus groups to develop and refine a previous business concept. The moderation was unimpressive, to say the least, even though the moderator was a high level, very bright person in a major agency, later to go on to become quite well known in the agency business. That lead us to:

Lesson #1: Not everyone, no matter how bright and knowledgeable, can – or should – moderate focus groups.

Since I had just spent several years learning how to moderate groups, Ron and I decided that we would conduct future focus groups ourselves. We conducted about 50 face-to-face focus groups, on all aspects of the business: concept, marketing and advertising, with different possible market segments. It’s interesting to note that we couldn’t run telephone groups because one of the things that we were investigating was people’s attitudes toward telephone groups. If we had run the groups on the phone, many of their qualms would have been satisfied before they were expressed.

We eventually developed a concept and an advertising campaign which offered conference calls to people for the purpose of exchanging information with each other. The people themselves would pay for participation, for the fun and information they would get from talking with people who shared their interests. It was something like a high-level version of the 900 number chat lines that later developed, except that the phone company wouldn’t develop such a service at the time. They wouldn’t offer a way to bill customers for services delivered over phone lines, and they wouldn’t sell conferencing equipment. They were making quite enough money as a monopoly, thank you. They wouldn’t even listen. “We don’t do that.” Things sure changed when they became a business! The ordinary conference call: terrible quality but great dynamics – when they worked.

In the meantime, I had been experimenting with conference calls set up by the phone company. The experiments convinced us that the conference call was a superb and totally undeveloped delivery mechanism for the exchange of information, but that the phone company’s equipment and procedures were woefully inadequate. About half of the calls broke down from howling noises, static and other problems. We had outside consultants develop equipment for us that would allow the kind of interaction and control that we wanted. That lead to:

Lesson #2: The equipment makes a tremendous difference

But even with the inadequacies of the existing equipment, I was struck by how much more comfortable and open people were in phone groups than in face to face groups. More importantly, I was struck by how much more productive the discussions were: there was more cognitive information and more emotional content. I couldn’t believe my ears, so I conducted informal experiments with randomly selected people alternatively assigned to face to face groups, blindfolded groups and telephone groups. Independent observers rated the telephone groups to be much more informative, with the blindfolded groups a close second. When I told one of my former group dynamics professors about this, she conducted groups of people alternatively facing in toward each other (in visual contact) and facing outward away from each other (not in visual contact). She reported that the content of the discussion was more to the point, more focused and more productive when participants were not able to see each other’s faces. However, participants were intensely uncomfortable being next to each other without being able to see each other. The phone, of course, eliminated this discomfort. This lead to:

Lesson #3: Discussions are more productive on the phone than face to face, but the participants don’t necessarily realize it

We started testing our peer exchange service by bringing together gourmet cooks/cookbook writers, photographers and international travelers in dozens of conference calls. The information flow was nothing short of astounding. However, the participants would not pay for the service at price levels that would make the service profitable, given our billing costs.

Then, I got the idea: If manufacturers of food products, photography equipment and providers of travel services could only hear the sessions we were conducting, they would be able to respond to their customers’ needs better.

Since we had agreed to maintain confidentiality with our participants, we were just about to ask our participants if we could run some special, non-confidential sessions when a couple of people from ad agencies who had heard about our services asked if we could run focus groups of hard-to-reach, geographically dispersed people.

Of course, we jumped at the chance. I was open with them about my lack of marketing knowledge at the time. I said that I could get virtually any category of people to participate in any legitimate discussion, and that I was expert at getting information, even of a deep psychological nature, from people; however I would need guidance about what information was needed. Fortunately I had some pretty savvy and patient clients, about half of the top 20 advertising agencies (the other half thought the idea of focus groups on the phone was too unusual to try at first.) and some very large and sophisticated companies. This lead to:

Lesson #4: If you admit what you don’t know, knowledgeable people may be willing to teach you.

At about the same time, we approached pharmaceutical companies because their customers, physicians, are among the most inaccessible people. I had grown up in my father’s pharmacies, always pestering him to explain to me what every drug was for, so I was knowledgeable about prescription drugs and comfortable with physicians and medical terminology.I was selling better groups, they were buying hard-to-get respondents

Trying to sell telephone focus groups was a baptism of fire, since what I was selling was more interaction, openness, information and creative ideas. No one believed me, and it didn’t matter anyway since what they were buying was access to difficult-to-reach physicians, particularly specialists. Prospective clients would challenge me by asking if I could get dermatologists specializing in a particular condition, or heads of burn clinics, or alcoholism specialists, or Parkinsonism specialists. These were, in fact, our first groups. I would brashly say, “Sure, even if you want red-headed, left-handed gynecologists, if you give me a list and I can’t get them, you don’t pay.” We got a lot of business. This lead to:

Lesson #5: Given the right methods, you can get almost anyone into telephone focus groups. (More about this later)

We discovered that the additional openness of people in phone groups was even greater for physicians than for most other people. Physicians have a lonely job. They operate under conditions of information overload, high expectations and extreme ambiguity and uncertainty. They want to, but can’t, discuss their mistakes, knowledge gaps and doubts so that they can learn from each other. They need to “let their hair down” with their peers, but can’t afford to do so with people in their immediate area. In telephone focus groups, we discovered that physicians are routinely willing to even discuss how they have killed people by using inappropriately high dosages of medications, how they had incorrectly diagnosed and treated patients, how they cut corners from accepted practice, and where they are uncomfortable with the gaps in their knowledge. Most clients became converts after their first session.

It is also interesting to note that most of my initial clients, especially in the pharmaceutical industry, who were among the first to dare to use this radically new technique, are now among the top people in the industry. When I had to conduct a focus group of pharmaceutical company presidents a few years ago, I was able to recruit most of them from former clients. I’m not claiming that telephone focus groups made them what they are today, but instead that these were the kinds of people who were not afraid to take leadership in trying something new.

I have always believed that I’m offering a better group in the sense of providing more information. My clients are primarily buying access to difficult to reach and geographically dispersed people. Since there’s no conflict between what I’m selling and what they’re buying, everyone’s happy. This lead to:

Lesson #6: What you are selling isn’t necessarily what the customer is buying.

I was selling better groups, they were buying access.