Introduction to Telephone Focus Groups

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Answers To The Most Frequently Asked
Questions About Telephone Focus Groups

These are the questions that I am most frequently asked. Don’t hesitate to give me a call or drop me a line if you want more detail or of you have other questions.


Why Run Telephone Focus Groups?

In comparison to face-to face groups, telephone focus groups deliver:

Difficult-to-recruit people

  • High level
  • Geographically dispersed
  • Low incidence

Higher quality respondents

Lower cost

Greater openness, interaction, focus and intensity. Less posing.

Wider geographical representation: nationwide, regional or district

Ability for your highest level people to listen in without travel

Greater speed from initial order to first groups, and from first group to completed project.


When should I think of using telephone focus groups?

Anytime that you are thinking of conducting focus groups or individual interviews, you should seriously consider telephone focus groups. Participants are less intimidated and more open because they can’t see each others’ expressions of disapproval, and because they are from different cities (so they are not actual or potential competitors or colleagues). They are more willing to disagree with each other. You get greater frankness and group support on the phone, so that even sensitive topics – where you would ordinarily think of individual interviews – can be conducted by telephone focus group. The times when telephone focus groups are particularly effective are:

  1. Anytime it is difficult or impossible to recruit people into focus groups. This includes the obvious “impossible” people: Experts, physician specialists, high-level executives, department heads and store owners. Also, to reach other kinds of “prescribers” and “recommenders” who don’t necessarily buy directly: Physicians, pharmacists, nurses, researchers, technicians, consultants, engineers, architects, store salespeople, chain buyers, managers, economists, legislators, corporate presidents, hospital administrators and your own star salespeople.
  2. When respondents are rare, “low incidence,” or widely dispersed geographically: Heads of various kinds of clinics, famous thought leaders, users of a prototype, beta testers, users of a newly introduced product, rural practitioners, etc.
  3. When there are issues which are so sensitive that anonymity is needed, so you must get people from a wide geographical area: users of stigmatized products, high income individuals, competitors, people who are doing something “wrong,” etc.
  4. When speed is essential;
  5. When people are unwilling to open up;
  6. When you want greater informality, willingness to speculate, more creative ideas;
  7. When you want nationwide or region wide representation;
  8. When you are testing an unusual concept;
  9. When you only want to conduct a couple of groups, but want nationwide representation.


It sounds like you would totally replace face-to-face groups with telephone focus groups!

No, not quite, I conduct face-to-face focus groups when people have to “kick the tires,” for easier-to-get respondents, for day-long creativity sessions, with young children, when video tapes have to be shown during the session, and when clients have to go to a fun city like San Francisco in order to get key company executives to come along to listen to the sessions!

How do telephone focus groups work?

Respondents are invited by phone, from your lists or ours, to participate in a nationwide group telephone discussion at a specific day and time. We send them a confirmation letter. We place a reminder call a day before the session. About 15 minutes before the session, we call each participant, remind him/her that we will be calling, and ask the participant to inform any members of the family that the call will be coming in. At session time, we call them at their home or office anywhere in the country from our high-quality, state-of-the-art telephone conference system. They hear carefully selected music for a few seconds, and the technical assistant welcomes each participant individually and checks the line. The music stops and our moderator guides the discussion using techniques designed to create maximum interaction between participants. You and your colleagues can call in from anywhere. You can have notes passed to the moderator by faxing them, or by pressing *0 on your telephone touch-tone pad. You can give inputs to the moderator’s assistant without being heard by the participants, as if you were behind a one way mirror. The sessions last for about an hour and a half and provide about as much information as a two hour face-to-face session, because they are more intense, and no warm-up is needed.


But don’t you have to see facial expressions and body language?

No. This is the most misunderstood and hotly debated – usually before people have heard their first groups – issue about telephone focus groups.

The phone is hardly an alien mode of communication. Most people turn gestures and facial expressions into “verbal gestures” on the phone. Without even realizing it, they make remarks like, “Uh-huh, yeah, nah, umm,” they laugh, etc. Our conference system allows us to hear these clearly, unlike others which only allow one voice at a time to be heard. In fact, there are many advantages to phone groups which arise from the fact that the participants can’t see each other: (1) People on the phone will usually verbalize in whole sentences what would have only been a scowl or head nod. (2) The phone is a very intimate and focused medium, allowing us to cover more in less time. (3) People don’t have a sense of group size on the phone, so they are less inhibited. (4) Silence is less tolerable on the phone, which draws people out. We use first names, encouraging informality and protecting anonymity. Since there are less social distractions, the participants settle down to a productive discussion faster. Since people don’t usually know each other, there is less role playing.

More about this later.

How do you know who’s talking? What keeps it from becoming a chaotic free-for-all?

Telephone focus groups over our state-of-the art equipment, using our methods, are more orderly, yet more interactive, than face-to-face discussions. The participants use their names when they talk. This becomes quite natural, even during rapid interaction. If two people try to talk at the same time, our computer screen indicates who they are, and if one does not defer to the other, it’s a simple matter for the moderator to call on one of them, then the other. Of course, in a telephone focus group, all remarks are automatically directed to everyone, so the conversation never breaks down into side conversations.

Is any kind of special equipment needed for the participants or the listeners?

No. Any ordinary telephone, cordless phone, or speakerphone is OK. On our end, we have a state-of-the art teleconferencing facility specially designed for telephone focus groups. There is instant dial out to participants so people do not wait more than a few seconds before being greeted by a live person and beginning their discussion with the moderator. Our features include the use of a fiber optic network which maintains the highest possible fidelity and audio quality. People sound like they are right next door. There is no voice blocking (where only one voice at a time is heard, with the others blocked), so barriers between participants disappear and interactive conversation increases. The moderator is able to view asterisks on a computer screen which indicate who is speaking. This enables him/her to respond instantly to people by name and know where they stand on any issue. Instant electronic participant polling is possible as well as instant client contact with the moderator. Clients may participate from ordinary telephone handsets, or take advantage of our remote talker ID capability. This lets a client dial into the conference system by modem, and view the same screen the moderator is seeing. The client can know at all times who is talking and who is voicing agreement. For more information on our system features call me at 914-365-0123. There is also some more detailed information on the conference system later in this report.

What kind of participant incentives do you offer?

For 17 years, I offered no monetary incentives, not even to physicians! The reason they participate is to compare their experiences with a nationwide group of other people similar to themselves, and to learn from each other, without any inconvenience. A major part of the creativity that we bring to project design is in selecting topics which are interesting enough to the participants to attract them, yet which serve the purposes of the research without biasing the results. At this point, we offer honoraria. When this is done, we get somewhat higher attendance rates and greater participant cooperation. The rates are usually a little less that we offer to people to participate in face-to-face groups.

How does the cost compare with face-to-face groups?

Telephone groups are usually slightly less expensive, for comparable respondents and moderators (keep in mind, however, that we are almost always going after a higher level of respondent). Sometimes, when you compare the cost of just the recruiting and facility rental, this difference may be as little as 10%, or even less.

However, it’s in the “hidden costs,” which are not so hidden anymore, that the savings really become important. Often, because of better geographical representation, you can conduct less groups. So a six group project on all regions of the country, may turn into a four group project, or stay at six groups with more depth (and therefore more value). Then you have to consider such hidden expenses as travel, extra people wanting to tag along, and entertainment. When you add up slightly lower facility, recruiting and incentive cost, no respondent or client food, no travel, and less groups telephone groups can be dramatically less expensive, sometimes even 20-40% less. The research director of one company called me up when I previously quoted such a figure and said that I was way off base: he said that he usually has to travel with about 10 other colleagues to each group. His travel is much more than the price of the groups! In his case, he can cut his research costs by more than half! Using the new remote video technology might be an answer, but it isn’t available in many of the smaller towns that he has to cover, and video has its own severe limitations (such as the camera often being pointed at the speaker rather than the rest of the group, or all of the rest of the limitations of face-to-face groups that are explained later in this report).

This, of course, doesn’t take into account the less wear and tear on the moderator and the client research manager and its consequent improvement in productivity. You may have to stay on the phone a few evenings, but there are no plane delays, airline food, or other travel wear and tear. You can be back at work the next morning rather than on a plane going to the next city.

Your mileage and savings may vary.

How long does it take to set up groups?

About two to three weeks is usual, depending on our work load, types of respondents, complexity of screening, etc. We have conducted groups in as little as one day after our client was hit with an emergency. Since we do not have to travel, we can run more groups per week to get your study done faster.

I’ve heard telephone focus groups that were terrible, with little interaction, poor audio quality and an impersonal feeling from the moderator and the participants.

I’ve listened to similar groups, both face to face and telephone. Unfortunately, not everyone running groups is cut out for it. Conducting telephone groups requires an extra measure of sensitivity, together with an ability to project informality, friendliness, naturalness, openness and psychological safety. The telephone is an extremely intimate, personal, and informal medium, but it is also very intense, and tends to magnify and deficiencies of the moderator. The moderator has to be able to take advantage of this intimacy, informality and intensity. When you try telephone focus groups, make sure that you use an extremely experienced moderator. If you have a favorite face-to-face moderator, don’t judge the entire technique of telephone groups by that one moderator’s first groups.

On the issue of poor audio quality: there is no excuse for it. The session should sound as least as good as or even better than, a regular telephone call. With the proper equipment and training of technical assistants, there is no reason to settle for anything but perfect audio quality and a high level of professionalism from the people running the equipment. They should sound conspicuously not like “operators.” Every detail, even the opening music that is used while people are waiting for the session to begin, has an effect on the dynamics of the group.

What do we get?

Usually included in our fee is: Design consultation, recruiting, use of third-party telephone conference system, participants’ telephone line charges, moderating, summary report, recording, telephone client/moderator debriefing session. The only thing not included is clients’ telephone line charges, since they call into the session. Clients usually provide an inviting list. An added bonus in most projects is a Decision Support Analysis, which is a detailed breakdown of where the participants are in the decision making process, including recommendations for how to move them ahead toward adoption of the product. It is based on the Decision Map, a flowchart of the product adoption process based upon our experience with thousands of groups.

What is your background?

I am a completely recovered and reformed psychologist. My training is in educational and clinical psychology, but my primary interest is in the psychology of marketing, decision-making and persuasion, for which the formal study of psychology has not prepared me, but several decades of marketing consulting has. I have written and lectured widely on marketing and marketing research, am the inventor of the telephone focus group, the Decision Map, Persuasion Design Laboratories and Electric Advisory Groups, discoverer of Total Decision Support and co-inventor of the peer word of mouth group. I have been a Founding Member, Treasurer and member of the Board and Executive Committee of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA), and have been Chairman of its Professionalism Committee. I co-founded TeleSession in 1970. As Executive Vice President, I was responsible for the development of all programs and services for nine years. In 1979 I founded Market Navigation, Inc. and The Teleconference Network. I am completing a book on Total Decision Support. In a strong belief that a marketing consultant needs to be well rounded, I’m an avid photographer and windsurfer. I’m a member of the Parent Assembly of the Society of American Magicians and have appeared in its New York Close-up Magic Show, and am also a member of the Academy of Magical Arts (The Magic Castle) in L.A. I just like to do the impossible.

What are the different kinds of research purposes that can be accomplished by telephone focus groups?

I have conducted PhoneFocus groups for the following purposes:

Ad testing

New product design

Product tracking

Concept development

Opinion analysis

Questionnaire generation

Copy testing

Taste tests

Questionnaire follow-up

Decision analysis

Persuasion design

Reasons for heavy usage

Idea generation

Problem solving

Reasons for “try & drop”

Image studies

Product acquisition

Packaging tests

Needs analysis

Product positioning

Word of mouth analysis


What is the best way to try them?

Try running a small project of 2-4 sessions, on a subject where you anticipate having difficulty getting respondents to participate. That way, the methodology is easy to justify to skeptics within your organization: it’s either telephone groups, individual interviews (lacking interaction and depth), or nothing at all. If you can, try it for the first time with a subject which is a little less important, and thereby a little safer, because you usually don’t want to try any new methodology on a critically important issue. About half of our new clients try us in this way. The other half have a crucial issue, with high level respondents, that must be investigated in a few weeks, where they want many people from the home office to listen to the groups. Telephone groups are the only way to go. This last scenario lets you and us become heroes (we’ve always come through), but, if at all possible, it’s better to try to get to know telephone focus methodology under less stressful conditions. Under normal circumstances, telephone groups are relaxing, with you at home in comfortable clothes, with your feet up and favorite drink in hand, and your dog at your side. Also, you can sleep in your own bed that night, with better research results to talk with your colleagues about in the morning.

Next article:

The Shocking Truth About Telephone Focus Groups