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Focusing on your business: focus groups help businesses plan for the future.

Eight men and women sat around the table, sometimes griping, sometimes complimenting. They were aware that everything they did was being recorded through the microphones that sat on the table and by a camera they couldn't see. They were even told they were being watched by people sitting in a room on the other side of a big one-way mirror.

This was a very select group of people, all of whom agreed to subject themselves to this scrutiny and debate. By meeting a set of specific criteria, they became the select few chosen from hundreds of potential candidates. The pool of potentials was screened to weed out specific uncommonalities and extreme biases.

In the end, the chosen ones became part of a focus group.

This day, the group discussed their thoughts about and experiences with telecommunications service in Alaska. The discussion was lead by leading researcher Jean Craciun of Craciun Research Group Inc., and was paid for by Alaska Communications System.

Changes were expected in the Alaska telecommunications market, and in light of increasing competition from companies offering these services-which include Internet and wireless, longdistance and local phone services-ACS wanted to get an idea of how the public feels.

"A new competitor is coming to town, so we wanted a focus group to look at the market so we could evaluate what we are doing right and wrong, and how to convert some of those customers," said Ruth Sandstrom, vice president and general manager of ACS Wireless. "You tend to track along thinking you know what is going on, but sometimes it's nice to have a good look."

And there is little argument around the state that Craciun is the best in the field of qualitative research.

THE RESEARCHER

Craciun is the only full-service research company in Alaska, offering focus groups, surveys, in-depth analysis and recommendations. It is the only research group in the state that has everything in-house for such work: the hi-tech audio and video equipment, the observation and conference rooms, as well as teleconference equipment for longdistance research.

Craciun Research began operations in Anchorage in June 1989, and opened a new office this spring in Washington, D.C. Craciun is a member of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, a national not-for-profit association of independent, qualitative researchers. She was involved over the last several months in helping the group design a set of ethical and competency guidelines for conducting such research.

Focus groups are used for qualitative research, she says pointedly, and is not the same as gathering a group of random people to talk about a subject.

Quantitative surveys are used to answer the question of "How many?" or "How much?" Qualitative, on the other hand, helps determine the underlying motivations, feelings, attitudes and perceptions.

"Focus is the key word," she said. "I don't know how to analyze a random public. That's a meeting. For a focus group, you have to set out criteria and go find the right participants."

After focus group sessions, the information gathered must be thoroughly analyzed based on the themes of the discussions, she said. This analysis makes for better, more substantiated recommendations for future decision-making, such as marketing and advertising campaigns or new services to offer customers.

"If you are just trying to get out and get a feeling for what's going on, sure, get out and talk to the public," she said. "Just don't call it a focus group."

An example, if a client wants to know something specific about telecommunications, members of a focus group would need to meet certain, specific criteria. Perhaps they'd have to be within a certain age group and use one or more telecom media. They would at least need to be familiar with the client's services, perhaps even be the decisionmaker for the providers.

Questions for the screening process depend on what the client wants to know.

Craciun often takes a few minutes to "debrief" her clients after the group leaves. They discuss the initial reactions and ideas that came from the members. Later, the researchers will review the audio and video tapes and write an initial report for the client. A few days later, the client gets a full, detailed report with recommendations for future decisions regarding the research. This report offers themes and quotes from the group. She also offers consultations after the bulk of the work is done. "You're there to remind the client what the customer said."

Cost for a well-rounded focus group session, along with the full report, recommendations and follow-up advice, ranges from $4,000 to $6,000, Craciun said. About half of the fee goes toward the researcher's professional services and experience. The rest goes toward putting the groups together and paying the group participants a fee, which is anywhere from $50 to $200, depending on their levels of professionalism.

THE SCREENERS

Without the work and finesse of people like Ashley Weingart and Sabina Rollins, Craciun's focus groups wouldn't be so successful. Weingart loads the "screeners"-those survey questions put to potential focus group participants-into a specific computer program that helps sort through the questions and answers.

On a recent Friday evening, Rollins and Weingart were patiently going down the phone list of names built specifically for the ACS focus groups, dialing number after number, hoping they could at least get past the introduction.

"Hello, my name is Sabina and I'm with Craciun Research Group, an Alaska company ... Oh, OK. Thank you and have a wonderful day.

Another potential group member declines the offer. Rollins has one of the more frustrating jobs at the research facility, often dialing hundreds of numbers before she and a handful of other callers get a dozen people to answer all the questions correctly and who will agree to participate in the focus group. On this day, Weingart was helping out. It was a sunny, warm evening, and people weren't anxious to pick up the phone or to answer questions. After more than an hour, the frustration became evident.

"Hello, my name is Ashley and I'm with Craciun Research Group, an Alaska company. We are looking for men and women who would be interested in sharing their thoughts and opinions regarding wireless telephone products and services. We will be conducting a small discussion group of six to 10 Anchorage residents. We will pay you $50 for an hour of your time, as well as serve you a light meal. Do you think that you would be interested in attending this focus group meeting?"

(As noted on the script: If no, thank and terminate; if yes, proceed.)

"Great, we just have a few questions to make sure we get a representative group of people."

This respondent got through the first handful of questions with no problem. But it only takes one unsatisfactory answer to put them in a category that doesn't fit the parameters needed for the focus group.

Participants must have similar interests and backgrounds, perhaps be within a certain age range or income bracket. It all depends on what the client wants to learn.

"We do this so that they (the participants) will feel comfortable with each other," Craciun said. "If they are too different, with too different experiences, the conversation stays on the surface level. They spend the whole time in the group trying to get comfortable with each other.

"They have to be screened to answer the questions in the right way to be part of the group," she added. "It's kind of a mini-survey. If they answer in a certain way throughout, they are invited to this focus group. If they answer another way, they may be invited to another group.

"Some people actually get upset if they are not selected."

After the incorrect response, Weingart winces. After informing him he didn't qualify for that particular group, she asks if it's OK to call him in the future. She thanks him for his time and hangs up.

"Argh! We were almost there."

How often does that happen? "Too often," she said. "Sometimes it makes you want to cry."

"This reminds me of that time we needed one more male for a group in Fairbanks," Rollins said. "And wouldn't you know, there was not one male in all of Fairbanks."

"I've been here eight hours before and not got one," Weingart said.

But, Weingart added, she now tends to be more sympathetic to researchers who ring her at home.

THE FOCUS GROUP

The group files into the conference room and is seated around the table. They open their boxed lunches of salad and a sandwich while making polite conversation with the other members.

Linda Boochever steps in and introduces herself as the assistant moderator.

"I'll be sitting at this table tucked away in the corner," she tells them. "You won't hear me say another word."

Craciun enters the room and begins the introductions. She serves as the group moderator. Moderators must use certain techniques to do the job correctly, she said.

She brings to the group a discussion guide, a script that outlines her role as moderator. The roles from the members of the group are more improvisational.

She tells members of the group information is confidential and asks them not to discuss it outside the meeting. Craciun explains to the group they are being recorded and observed by people in a little room behind the big one-way mirror behind her.

Every eye of the group turns toward the mirror. The ACS people in the little room wave, knowing they can't be seen.

The second phase of the discussion is the warm-up, a general discussion of the topic. Craciun soon introduces open-ended questions to bring out more in-depth responses.

Respondents may be asked to talk about their experiences, what they've heard from others. They venture into the "What if ...?" phase of discussions-"What would you do if ...?" or "What if you could ...?"

These discussions form the basis for the report-offering detailed analysis and recommendations-to go to the client.

After the wrap-up, Craciun handed each member of the group an envelope containing a $50 bill and they filed out of the conference room.

"Geez," one man said as he was leaving. "This is better than jury duty; you're out in an hour."

TYPE OF QUALITATIVE RESEARCH

Focus Groups: The most common form of qualitative research. The group is moderated and speaks informally about the research topic. Most groups are comprised of eight to 10 people.

Mini-Groups: Similar to larger groups, but are usually comprised of four or five people. The group is guided by a moderator, and the smaller group size allows for more in-depth conversation on the research topic.

Dyads and Triads: Special forms of research that involve a moderator leading two or three people on a specific topic. Allows more detailed probing by the moderator and yields more in-depth results into insights and behaviors.

In-Depth Interviews: One-on-one situation in which a moderator asks a series of openended questions to a recruited respondent. Generally used in the exploratory phase of a project.

Source: The Qualitative Research Consultative Association

Editor's note: Alaska Business Monthly was allowed to observe the process of designing and conducting focus groups. In an agreement with Craciun Research Group Inc. and Alaska Communications Systems, Alaska Business Monthly agreed to concentrate its story on the process of focus groups without detailing content divulged in the process.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
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Author:Campbell, Melissa
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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