The Shocking Truth about Telephone Focus Groups

A surprising thing happened as I was writing this report. I originally intended to write a guide to the telephone focus group, outlining its specialized uses for difficult-to-reach people. As I put down in one place things that I had never seen together before, I began see them in a whole new light. I came to an astonishing conclusion, which I’ll get to in a moment.

After writing the first section on how I developed the telephone focus group, I examined the conditions under which both face-to-face and telephone groups are conducted. In looking back at the thousands of both kinds of groups I have conducted over the last two and a half decades, I began to realize that I have been falling into a trap all these years: I have been defending telephone focus groups as almost as good as face-to-face groups, assuming with everyone else that they could never be quite as good because you lose the visual element which so enhances the ability to interpret what is being said. The obvious justification of telephone groups, I thought, was to bring together low incidence, hard-to-reach, geographically scattered professional and business people.

I was wrong, wrong wrong. (The only other time I was wrong was in 1972, when I thought I had made a mistake! [Just kidding.])

For me, the amazing and unavoidable realization that has emerged is:

The telephone is the preferable way to conduct most focus groups.

This may sound outrageous to you, but let me share some of my experiences and thinking with you, and see if you arrive at the same conclusion. Don’t accept at face value anything I say. Judge for yourself. After all, if I’m right, you may be able to cut down the time you spend on airplanes, in hotels, and behind – or in front of – one-way mirrors.

What happens when you put a group on the telephone?

The phone has its advantages and disadvantages. Let’s understand them by first looking at the environment of face-to-face groups and then comparing what happens when you put a group of people on the phone.

Face-to-face sessions are the ones that are unnatural

Most people reading this will have seen so many face to face focus groups that they no longer notice how artificial the situation is. As the saying goes, “The fish is the last to discover water.”

Ever since the focus group was moved out of people’s living rooms and clients started tagging along, the whole situation has become very unnatural. (In fact, focus groups and individual depth interviews are the only kinds of marketing research where the client attends the actual the collection of the data and is therefore able to jump to conclusions in the middle of the research instead of waiting until after it is over to jump to the same conclusions.)

Since clients attend focus groups, cities are often selected according to where the client wants to visit, rather than based upon strictly research considerations.

Respondents are asked to leave home to go to a facility in a mall or office building. They often dress up – even professional people – since they are going to a special place. They are anxious about what will happen, what people will think of them, and even if they will find the facility (those few who have not been there many times before). They walk into a place of business, with desks, fluorescent lights, a waiting room, strangers walking around, and some very friendly people trying to make them “feel at home.” They are usually asked to fill out a questionnaire, then ushered into a room with a table, or a phony living room, with a big mirror covering one wall, and microphones hanging down from the ceiling.

A wonderfully engaging moderator welcomes them, tries to get them to relax, and tells them that there are “no wrong answers,” an obvious lie. In the meantime, they don’t know where to look, how to behave or what will happen. Even before they introduce themselves, they are trying to size each other up. During the discussion, they may worry about what will get back to family, friends, professional colleagues or competitors. It is usually inadvisable to mix men with women, doctors with nurses, users with ex-users, or other combinations where people will tend to intimidate or bias each other.

It is difficult to think of a situation which is It is a real tribute to the better moderators, who can loosen people up as much as they do under these trying circumstances.

That’s the situation. There are also abuses which should not be blamed on the face to face situation itself, but which are made easier by the setting: Respondents often see the clients in the hallway or hear them behind the one-way mirror. Friends are often invited to different groups, briefing each other between sessions. Of course there is the chronic problem of “professional respondents,” people who attend focus groups on a regular basis to supplement their incomes.

There is also the overused respondent, which is unavoidable in some cases. For example, some medical specialists such as rheumatologists (arthritis specialists) are in short supply. You have to have a minimum of about 50 in an area in order to recruit a group. This leaves about 6 cities in which you can conduct a face-to-face group. The rheumatologists in these cities use the focus group as a social occasion. They are invited almost weekly to someone’s focus group. They are very selective, participating every few months. They pick and choose according to what topic sounds most interesting. In Atlanta, I heard such comments as, “Hi Joe [another physician], haven’t seen you since the last focus group.” “Are we going to be doing a concept test, or position a product? I hope you have animatics. I love them.” They even stayed at the end of the session, inviting me to listen while they gave me a “critique” of my moderating, knowing that my clients were behind the one-way mirror! Fortunately, I had warned my client that these would be far from “virgin” respondents. Also, their critique of my moderation was extremely positive. (They weren’t so complimentary about the food, however. One cupped his hands around his eyes and pressed them to the one way mirror, enabling him to see into the observation room. He said, “How come they get better food that we get?”)

I’m not saying that all participants are uncomfortable in face-to-face groups, although most of them are at least somewhat wary. Some are excited, and glad to get other adults to talk to. Some are eager to perform. The point is that they are in a very unnatural situation which tends to distort their responses.

This is widely regarded as the “regular” and “natural” way to run focus groups!

Let’s contrast this with the phone.

Telephone groups are more natural

The participant is invited, usually from lists provided by the client, to participate in a telephone discussion on a particular topic. Participants are selected with a representative mix of urban and rural participants, from different geographical regions, in fact, with whatever geographical restrictions are most appropriate to the research objectives. The participation of professional respondents and frequent respondents are minimized, since we have the whole country to pull from and don’t have to stay with the same people in the major cities.

No one has to travel anywhere, since the participant will use whatever phone he/she designates, usually at home in the evening, sometimes in the office during the day. There is, therefore, no anxiety about finding the location, or what will be found there. Dressing up is obviously inapplicable. Quite the contrary, people report that they have gotten out of their work clothes into something more comfortable. An occasional participant has mentioned participating in his or her pajamas.

They don’t have to be made to “feel at home.” They Most people have a room with a phone extension in which they can participate without distraction. They are not “eyeballing” each other, judging how they are dressed, pre-judging who they are and who they remind each other of. There is no one-way mirror, no special microphone (it’s already there in the mouthpiece of their phone), no artificiality of any kind.

They feel safer in their own natural environment, talking into their own phone, eating and drinking their own snacks, sitting in their own favorite chair, in (or out of!) their most comfortable clothes. As they look around, they notice nothing alien or out of the ordinary.

Adding to the feeling of safety is the subconscious realization that if it gets too uncomfortable, or is not what was promised, they are secure in the realization that escape is easy; all they have to do is hang up, which is extremely rare. No one sees them “walk out.” (Of course, my sense of safety is enhanced by the fact that I can disconnect any participant who is disrupting the group, without the group knowing that they have left. I’ve only had to do this twice in twenty five years.)

They listen for a while to some music which is known to put them in the right mood of relaxed anticipation (not elevator or waiting room music!). A very friendly, and conspicuously informal moderator gets on the phone with them, introduces them to each other, gives them some tips on participating, and starts the discussion. The introduction sounds so personal that often participants are already responding to the statements in the introduction as if the moderator is personally talking to them, saying “Uh, huh,” “Sounds good,” “Will do.” This is because when the moderator, or anyone else, is talking, his voice is going into each and every person’s ear as if he is talking directly to that person. In contrast, in a face-to-face group, when I am looking at one person, I am perceived as talking to him or her, since I’m not looking at the others. If I move my eyes to all of the participants, I’m perceived as not making personal contact with anyone. So, in a face-to-face group, even though people are.

Everyone is introduced by first names except for experts, who are introduced by full names but urged to participate on a first-name basis. The informality of the telephone encourages this.

People are freer to interact, especially to disagree with each other, since they can’t see each other and don’t anticipate disapproving scowls from the other people. They quickly and naturally learn to identify themselves when they talk by mentioning their first names: “This is Joe, and I’d like to add to what Mary said…” Also, since they can’t see each other, there is very little perception of group size. An eight person group usually feels like only about three or four people. No one is at the head of the table, no one is sitting closer to the moderator, or next to anyone else. Side conversations, sitting in the “power chair,” passing notes, and other distractions are eliminated. Also, people are drawn out even further because silence on the telephone is even more aversive than it is face to face, so people are quickly drawn in to fill the vacuum. Yet, interruptions are less frequent on the phone.

The electronics at our end process every line, dramatically enhancing sound quality, volume, frequency response and clarity. At the participants’ end, they notice nothing different except an unusually clear connection. What the participant hears usually sounds like a normal phone call at its best, as it would be from a friend down the block. What you hear is the best focus group tape you’ve ever heard, since the microphones are an inch from each participant’s mouth!

Our electronics make it very easy for the moderator or participants to interrupt, so that you can hear grunts, groans, laughter, etc. This is absolutely necessary for moderator control and participant involvement.

Since there is less intimidation, heterogeneous groups are not only possible, they are highly productive. People you would never mix before, such as surgeons and dietitians, or cardiologists and nurses, can be mixed as long as they are not from the same city. A nurse will take on several leading cardiologists on the phone in ways that are unthinkable face to face. Of course, you are not restricted only to the major cities to get medical specialists, or factory managers, or hardware store owners, or car dealers. Competitive issues are minimized or eliminated. There are few professional or overused respondents, since you can reach out into the whole country, rather than be restricted to the largest cities for certain types of respondents.

I have conducted extensive post session interviews with both telephone and face to face focus group respondents. The telephone respondents do have some anxiety and discomfort, but it mostly centers around how eight people can possibly interact naturally on the phone without chaos. There is also some performance anxiety, just as in face to face groups. But there is no doubt that telephone participants are more relaxed and comfortable before and during the session.

In summary, the telephone focus group is characterized by informality and comfort, coupled with the perception that “everyone is talking with me,” a lack of visual distractions and intimidation, a feeling of safety since participants are hiding behind their telephones in their own natural environments, and a more accepting and intimate contact. In a word, naturalness. All of these combine to make people interact with each other more openly. In addition to the greater interaction, participants can be chosen more appropriately, since there are no geographical constraints.

This brings us to the conclusion:

The Telephone Focus Group is the more natural, less artificial, superior “environment” for a focus group.

It’s not “the next best thing to being there.” It’s better than being there since it opens people up by removing artificiality and introducing certain elements which work toward openness.

For years, I have been justifying why telephone focus groups are almost as good as face to face. People ask me questions which clearly come from their willingness to believe that telephone groups can be almost as good, but lacking the visual element, telephone groups obviously could never hope to be quite as good. What I have now realized is that it is precisely the lack of the visual element which creates the conditions that allow telephone focus groups to be better than face to face.

Interpretation: how to do it when you can’t see facial expressions and body language.

O.K., but the case still needs to be made for telephone focus groups being the preferred way of running a focus group. I have established that the environment is more natural and people are more open, but do you really get more information?

After all, people may be more open, but if you can’t access the information, you haven’t achieved anything. Undeniably, you are cut off from the visual channel in a telephone focus group. You can’t see facial expressions, gestures and body language, so how do you interpret what the participants are saying?

Non-verbals are the key

Facial expressions, gestures and body language are part of a more general class of expression called non-verbal communication. The “non-verbals” as they are called familiarly, are an essential part of communication. They tell us a whole range of information, such as emotional content, strength of beliefs, credibility and sincerity. Certain things like irony, sarcasm, annoyance and other emotions are usually communicated entirely non-verbally. Non-verbals are particularly important when they don’t match verbalizations. If you’ve ever read a transcript of a group that you have seen, I’m sure you were amazed at the difference. It just isn’t the same group. The transcript is the pure example of verbalizations without non-verbals. As such, it is so misleading that it is completely invalid as a data collection tool. You can’t read a group from a transcript alone.

There are other non-verbals besides the visual

But facial expressions, gestures and body language are not the only non-verbals. They are only the ones which are. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing a blind person, you know the kind of sensitivity they develop without visual input. It’s uncanny. They often sense emotions and mood changes before you are aware of them yourself. How? By hearing nuances in tone of voice, choice of vocabulary, pitch level, number and kind of hesitations, rate of speed, trailing off or picking up of volume, and many other speech subtleties. There are many other non-verbals communicated auditorily, such as “verbal gestures” like “Uh- huh,” “Nah,” and the like. A blind person can’t drive a car, but in the area of tuning into people, they are far from handicapped; many can claim the advantage. Just as I have trained myself to pick up subtle visual variations, such as changes in skin color, I have trained myself, over thousands of groups, to pick up auditory variations. I’m not nearly as skilled as a blind person, but I’m getting there.

Furthermore, most people have learned to control their visual non-verbals. People practice in front of mirrors. Also, they have been to school, where they learned to fake attention and interest so they wouldn’t be “called on.” Some people have become very skilled at having a “poker face.” However, two things usually give them away: Their eyes and their voices. People have even learned to look you right in the eye when they are lying. But most people have not learned to control their voices. They certainly don’t stand in front of tape recorders practicing.

In telephone focus groups, it’s not only the voices that you can learn to read. It’s also the pace of the session, how fast people jump in spontaneously, how much they ask questions of and react to each other, their verbal gestures, laughter, sarcasm, jokes, and silences. In short, there is an abundance of non-verbals in telephone groups.

It’s even better than that. When people can’t see each other, they translate many of their gestures into words, grunts, groans and similar auditory communications. It’s funny to see a small child gesturing into the phone. Some adults still do this, but most have learned to communicate on the phone orally what would have come out as gestures. People actually change their behavior on the phone, expressing visual non-verbals into a different channel (oral/aural).

In addition, I have an indication on my computer screen when there is the slightest sound on a line. Since the mouthpiece is so close to everyone’s mouth, I can hear and see even slight intakes of breath, sighs, clearing of throats and other subtle signs which would be impossible to discern face to face.

I actually use the fact that I can’t see participants to encourage greater expression. I tell them that since I can’t see them nodding or shaking their heads, I have to know whether a given person is speaking for all of them, or is a minority of one. But I also don’t want them to waste their time repeating someone else’s comments to agree with them. So, I say, I would appreciate a chorus of “Yeah, uh- huh, I agree,” or “Nah, disagree, nope.” They catch on fast, and it is often easier to tell consensus or disagreement on the phone than it is looking into a bunch of wooden faces. Of course, when this doesn’t work, a simple “Where are the rest of you on this?” works just as well as in a face-to-face group.

The fact is that in both kinds of groups, there is an embarrassment of non-verbal riches – more than you can pay attention to anyway and certainly enough to read the group.

To sum up, in a telephone group you get greater openness, willingness to engage each other, willingness to express divergent thinking. In short, more information.

You do miss the visual element, but this element, valuable as it is, is not as essential as one might at first think.

With skillful attention and probing, you can “read” a telephone group just as well as a face-to-face group, sometimes better.

In balance, I firmly believe that you gain more than you lose.

Why they have not caught on more

The main reason that telephone groups have not caught on even more than they have (their growth has been phenomenal) is that, while participants are more comfortable on the phone than face to face, the moderator and the client are not. Most of us have been trained to rely on the visual element far too much, both for control and for interpreting events around us. Most of us have many years invested in learning to “observe.” The observance of “body language” has practically become a cult, with an almost mystical flavor. No one wants to run a focus group “blind.” Everyone who runs telephone groups, including myself even after all these years, feels the lack of the visual channel as a loss.

The other reason that more telephone focus groups are not conducted, especially in situations where face to face is adequate, is that “that’s the way we do them, that’s the way they’ve always been done.” There is no problem, so “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This traditional thinking makes it very difficult to justify telephone focus groups to bosses and clients.

When someone wants to try them, they usually wait for groups that can’t be done any other way, since that’s what will rationalize their use. Then everyone at their company gets the idea that telephone focus groups are for high level, rare and/or geographically dispersed respondents, a belief which I have unfortunately encouraged. I don’t know of anyone who has heard telephone groups who has not become a convert to the technique, but I’m frustrated by how many of them have narrowly positioned telephone focus groups for only specialized applications. I even had one client who thought the only use of phone groups was for in-home taste tests in distant test markets!

Some added benefits

It’s much easier to get people back at the home office interested in listening to telephone groups. There are the people considered too “low level” to be allowed to attend face-to-face groups who should (like writers, or assistant product managers, or trainees) or people considered too “high level” to travel to groups (like company presidents, general managers, and directors of R&D). They’ll dial into groups they wouldn’t dream of traveling to.

When to use Telephone Focus Groups

I have spent too much time over the years falling into the trap of trying to justify and defend telephone focus groups. I realized writing this report that telephone focus groups do not have to be justified, it is face to face groups that do. So, the answer to the question “When should telephone groups be the method of choice?” is: Always, except in the relatively few places where face-to-face groups are unavoidable. I can’t avoid conducting face-to-face groups when the participants must actually handle the product (as distinct from being sent a videotape), when security considerations are such that you have to show them something that they can’t be sent in the mail, for day-long creativity sessions, and for groups of young children. For most other sessions, even with relatively easy-to-get participants, don’t ask me to justify why focus groups should be done on the phone; tell me in any givin situation why they should be done face to face.

Where it’s all going

I remember the days in the late 60’s and early 70’s when there was a great debate, believe it or not, about whether you could do quantitative surveys over the telephone. I’m referring to the kind of surveys which require yes/no, multiple choice or numerical answers. Procter and Gamble and others did a great deal of research comparing sending someone around to ring doorbells (malls didn’t exist in those days, but fortunately people answered their doorbells) vs. calling them on the phone. It was found that, if anything, phone surveys were more accurate. Then the debate turned to whether open-ended, qualitative studies could be done over the phone. Many experiments found that it is easier to discern over the phone whether people are lying. It became acceptable to conduct depth interviews by phone.

Someday, the phone will be just as acceptable, even the preferred way, to conduct focus groups. Most focus groups will be conducted that way in the future.

Still Skeptical?

If you’re still skeptical, I’ll bet it’s because you haven’t heard a phone group or you’ve heard some bad ones.

If you have heard some unimpressive phone groups, let me point out a few traps.

Not every good moderator is cut out for phone groups. The major mistake is formality coupled with a failure to get participants to respond to and talk with each other.

Also, most telephone conference equipment was designed by engineers to cut down on noise. But one man’s noise is another man’s data. You want to hear snickers, titters, grunts and groans. But most systems are voice blocked, so that you can only hear the person talking. This inhibits interaction and makes people feel invisible and ignored. You must be able to hear the other participants in the background and, above all, the sound must be natural, loud and clear. The electronics of most systems shut down the group, rather than make them more accessible and intimate.

If you’ve encountered any of these problems, don’t blame them on the telephone focus group technique any more than you would let poor moderation or an inadequate facility invalidate the whole face-to-face methodology.

There’s no doubt about it: telephone focus groups require an investment of training in listening skills and moderator techniques; initial discomfort; and risk in convincing bosses and clients. However, the gains are worth it.

Those of you who haven’t used telephone groups, I urge you to give them a try. Those of you who keep using them for specialized applications, think about why you were so impressed. Don’t you think those reasons are enough to justify making telephone focus groups the rule rather than the exception?

All you have to lose are your airline tickets.

Telephone Conference System Capabilities
that Improve Telephone Focus Groups

Several telephone conference system capabilities vastly improve telephone focus groups. I’ve gone through seven generations of technology since I began conducting telephone focus groups. The new generation is a much larger improvement for the client than all of the other generations put together.

The improvements are the result of a state-of-the-art teleconference system.

The groups not only sound different; the exciting thing to me is that they are completely different psychologically. They have a different flavor: more open, more energetic and more responsive.

The current generation conference system allows greater moderator responsiveness and control, more participant interaction, and several new ways to run groups. Here are some of these new capabilities:

A New Level of Audio Quality – barriers between participants disappear

Our conference system uses a digital fiber optic network, originally designed for high speed computer use, with multiples more bandwidth than is usually used for voice transmission. This means that the highest possible fidelity is maintained, absolutely without static. This makes much more of a difference than I thought it would. Everyone sounds like they are right next door. There is a “presence” that has to be heard to be appreciated. It all sounds so natural that you almost forget that you are in the phone!

Also, since several people can be heard at the same time, you can hear people saying “Uh-huh, yeah, I agree.” While this might sound like a disadvantage to the uninitiated, it is actually a major improvement. I can now hear respondents agreeing and disagreeing in the background, in contrast to the old voice blocked systems where you can only hear one person at a time. In voice blocked systems, there is a feeling of invisibility caused by the lack of response to someone talking. Now I can even hear someone clearing his/her throat prior to speaking, so that I know that the person has something to say because I can hear it in the background. Sort of the audio equivalent of seeing someone with her mouth open.

The moderator can see on a computer screen an indication of who is talking, clearing their throat, chuckling, etc. If several people try to talk at the same time, the moderator can easily sort out who is trying to talk. What this all adds up to is a more relaxed, friendly and interactive conversation, with more participant, moderator and client energy.

Instant participant polling – an indispensable tool

It is now possible to poll participants electronically.

I have always been frustrated by the following situation: I ask a question. The first response is deeply felt and expressed fervently. That’s why it’s first! If other people in the group agree, I don’t know if the other participants originally felt differently, but were swayed by the first remark. It takes time and special techniques to uncover whether there were opinion shifts.

With our teleconference system, before I open a topic for discussion, I can take a poll by asking the question in a form that can be expressed as a number. For instance, “On a scale of 1 to 9 (with one the lowest and 9 the highest) how satisfied are you with product X?” The participants can then press the appropriate buttons on their phones. I instantly see the votes next to each name and am able to know the relative degree of satisfaction. This screen can be printed out at the push of a button, to be reported later.

This capability has been an indispensable tool in some recent concept tests, where I was able to quickly zero in on the parts of the concept that were exciting and the parts that were problematic to particular participants. At the end of each sentence of the concept statement I had the participants push their phone buttons to indicate their degree of enthusiasm. It took only seconds longer than reading the statement straight through, but saved about 15 minutes of sorting out individual comments. I could then probe the problems and the participants in a much more fruitful way.

Remote Talker ID

Another feature is the ability for the client to dial into the conference system through a computer modem and be able to see the same screen that the moderator is seeing. The client can see the marks that tell the moderator who is talking, and see the results of the polls. The client can know at all times who is talking and who is voicing agreement.

Breaking down into smaller groups

A technique frequently used by advanced moderators is to break a group down into subgroups. For instance, the face-to-face moderator may have four negative participants and four positive participants huddle in opposite sides of a room to marshal their thoughts. They then meet as a large group to have each sub group try to convince the other side of a particular position. Or, especially in idea generation sessions, the moderator might have the participants break off into dyads (two people at a time) to break the ice and get the ideas flowing. They are then brought back to report the ideas they think were best and the ideas they thought were most ridiculous.

This breaking into subgroups can now easily be accomplished electronically. So, any combination of people can be mixed and matched instantaneously. A group can even be allowed to listen in to another group, then the tables can be turned.

Instant contact with the moderator

In the older conference systems, the client had to call out to get the assistant’s attention in order to pass a note to the moderator. Now, the client can press *0 on their touch tone pad, and have the assistant come on to their line much more quickly. Clients can huddle in a completely separate conference.

Instant dial out

Ordinary conference calls from the phone company can take 10-15 minutes to convene 10-12 participants (including client lines). Before the installation of the current generation of equipment, we used to take about 3 minutes. It now takes under a minute, because all of the lines can be dialed at the same time, rather than sequentially. This means that the first participant does not have to wait for longer than a few seconds before a live person greets him or her, and before the moderator starts the discussion, further reducing the wait and increasing professionalism.

Other features

There are other future features that are not as relevant to focus groups, but are major breakthroughs in other applications. For instance, there is now a question feature that lets people who are on muted lines listening to experts, indicate by touch tone that they have a question. Their lines can be un-muted in order to ask their question. There is even a way to indicate that their question has already been asked or answered, so that they are not called on unnecessarily.

Many features for medical seminars and large sales forces are also being developed.

The old-style telephone groups, especially the ones you may have heard on other company’s conference systems, are a thing of the past. They started a little more slowly, people couldn’t hear quite as well, you didn’t always know who was talking, people sometimes felt invisible. They have been replaced by a relaxed and open atmosphere, with absolute clarity, where the moderator is able to respond instantly to people by name and instantly know where they stand on any issue. I can go deeper psychologically in a friendlier, safer atmosphere. It’s amazing how a bunch of seemingly small improvements can make such a tremendous difference. I invite anyone who is interested in telephone focus groups to call us and set up a short demo to hear what state of the art sounds like.

Are you overlooking these people
in your marketing?

Telephone focus groups can help you get inside the heads of people who are otherwise difficult to research – people who you wouldn’t even consider researching under most circumstances, let alone trying to get into focus groups!

This section is intended to stimulate you to think about the kinds of people who you aren’t researching, but should.

Leveraged influencers

Every product that I have ever looked at has people who influence the ultimate purchaser: People who are up the distribution chain, or who serve as advisors or who otherwise influence the decision.

For instance, if a pharmaceutical product isn’t prescribed by physicians, it won’t be bought by the patient. And it might not be prescribed unless it’s endorsed by the experts, or chief pharmacists, or other formulary committee members. A replacement auto part will not be installed if the technicians or parts jobbers don’t stock it. If a product isn’t liked by the store clerk, the customer might be talked into another product.

These people can have a tremendous effect on how well your product is adopted. They may persuade, prescribe, endorse, advise, specify, approve or recommend the product to others. I call these people “leveraged influencers” because by concentrating your effort on just the right place, their decisions are multiplied and amplified. In many cases, they are actually more important for the marketer to influence than the ultimate purchaser.

They are very hard to research. They are besieged by requests for interviews. They don’t want to fill out or participate in surveys. They have very little patience for one-on-one interviews. Even when you can get them into one-on-one’s, their answers are often very terse, or extremely verbose. You are often left with a confusing mess of contradictory opinion. You don’t know how they would react to the opinions of others. What you really need are focus groups of these people, with the richness and depth that you get from interaction, but focus groups are out of the question because of the logistics.

These people are too busy and geographically scattered. In the rare cases where experts agree to attend a focus group, they often have to be flown to a central location. It’s not unusual for such a focus group to cost tens of thousands of dollars, when you add up incentives, travel and entertainment. If the people are from the same geographical area, often they don’t want to talk to competitors. One way to get them is at a convention, but the people who will attend focus groups at conventions tend to be a little weird. They are the types of people who will attend a focus group at six o’clock in the evening in San Francisco. Don’t they have anything better to do? They tend to be the social misfits. I call them the “plaid pants crowd.”

What happens when the irresistible marketing research technique meet the immovable respondents.

These “inaccessible” people tend to fall into several categories:

  • High-level people – too busy for almost anything.
  • Geographically dispersed – such as airport directors.
  • Extremely low incidence – such as the first triers of a new product

Now let me let you into a secret, so that what follows won’t seem theoretical: These people will participate in telephone focus groups!

No kidding. They really will. I’ll get to the reasons in a moment, but I want to make it real to you by giving you some examples: I’ve conducted telephone focus groups of Nobel-Prize-winning economists, U.S. Congressmen; Presidents of Fortune 100 companies; CFOs, treasurers and COOs of Fortune 100 companies; the heads of the leading alcoholism clinics, heads of breast cancer clinics, and just about every medical specialty there is; hardware store owners, supermarket managers, the coroners of major cities, HMO administrators; chief pharmacists of HMOs, hospitals and nursing home chains; chain store buyers, major wholesalers, school superintendents, multimillionaires (identified by a bank), magazine editors, airport directors, computer store owners, and many other “impossible-to-recruit” respondents.

Many of these groups were done before I started offering monetary incentives! Why do such people participate in telephone focus groups? Certainly not because they’re convenient (plenty of things are convenient that they wouldn’t go near) and certainly not for the monetary incentives.

They do it because they are interested in the topic and because they are starved for interaction with their peers. It gets pretty lonely at the top, and people want to hear what other similarly accomplished people think, how they handle similar problems, and what they anticipate doing in the future. They realize that they can only learn by direct experience and from other people who are at or above their level. These people are few and far between. That’s why such people jump at the chance of participating in a telephone focus group, as long as they are invited straightforwardly and professionally, the topic is interesting, and they feel that they well learn something.

Over the years, I’ve developed dozens of techniques for inviting hard-to-reach, high level, geographically dispersed people. This isn’t the time or place to go into them all, but I am confident that I can get almost any category of people provided that they are identifiable and that there is a legitimate purpose to interviewing them.

Whether you know it or not, you need these people

OK, I know that you probably don’t need the outrageously difficult kinds of people I’ve mentioned above. But you do have leveraged influencers in your situation. I’ve have yet to hear of a marketing situation that doesn’t. You need to understand them and figure out ways of influencing them. You need to get inside their heads.

Look at your product. Now look up the distribution chain and out to all of the important decision influencers.

To help you think about who you may be missing, I’ve prepared the following checklist. I hope it’s helpful.

Up the distribution chain







Chain store buyers

Retailers (owners, managers, clerks)


Delivery channels

Showroom people


Financial approvers

Architects, physicians and other specifiers and prescribers

Other influencers

Third party payers

Industry gurus


Committee members (Board members, other approval committees)

Triers who didn’t buy


Executives and managers



Family members

Salespeople: your own and other

Customers of your competitor’s product

Dissatisfied ex-customers




Who are the leveraged influencers in your situation? Are some of them even more important than your customers?


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