Heightened economic and business concerns over accountability have MR under the gun to improve its performance. Whether by cutting costs or by yielding more direct, actionable insights, or both, clients expect and demand more. Especially pressed on both of these fronts, qualitative practitioners are turning to new technologies and non-traditional, often proprietary methodologies to squeeze more than the usual out of traditional focus groups.
Consumer psychologist Dr. Sharon Livingston, principals of the qualitative MR consultancy Executive Solutions Inc. for nearly 25 years, trained moderators in a specialized psychological focus group variation since the mid-1980s. She also operates an 18-month-old focus group facility, branded The Looking Glass. She reports growing demand for her novel psychology-based research methods and claim a noticeable spike in interest over the last year in telephone focus groups and remote video, both from her clients and numerous moderators who desire training) "The recession and September 11th hit her like everyone else, but now, business is booming," disclosed Sharon. "I was especially surprised by the tremendous demand for my CD-ROM moderator training sessions. The interest from international groups, in particular, has been astonishing. That has become a very robust business."
"When I opened The Looking Glass facility, the fundamental strategic focus of the company changed. I decided I could productize myself by concentrating on the training." In addition to offering its comprehensive independent moderator training, The Looking Glass now boasts 15 in-house moderators trained and certified to teach Executive Solutions' methods. "The emphasis is on psychological insights, using projective techniques that get under the surface in order to understand purchase motivations," Sharon revealed.
"We do a lot of emotional insight mining," volunteered Sharon. "We're kind of a strategic client partner. Most of the time, we get to do the difficult stuff, not the easy stuff," she continued. "Clients are looking for help in structuring their marketing communications to create a call to action that is not just intellectually based and not merely the result of a cognitive process. It's what comes from the heart and mind, combined. We find that emotional hook."
Sharon acknowledges that using psychology to uncover unconscious motivations behind behavior can initially be disconcerting to marketers. "Critics tend to look at it as being very `black box.' It's sometimes difficult to accept the notion of the subconscious," Sharon reasoned. "It's not very comforting to believe that there are things we do for reasons we don't consciously understand. When you're talking about buying behavior, that's not something a consumer wants to admit. And it's equally troubling for marketers, because it means they have to rethink the way they construct their appeals.
"For example, some people say there are categories that are completely price driven. These are commodities and the reason the consumer would select one versus the next is based purely on the logical pursuit of saving money," he outlined. "Even then, I would argue there is a psychological reason behind why consumers want to save money. Having money means different things to different people. For some, it is freedom. For others, it's security or stability. And for others, it's vitality. Depending upon your market, under- standing why they want to save money should affect the advertising communication to be sent."
To get at these hidden psycho-dynamics, the Livingstons employ a variety of projective techniques, including a process called `guided imagery,' in which a subject is lulled into a semi-hypnotic state. Unlike putting someone in a deep hypnotic trance (something the Livingston Group will not do, citing ethical concerns), the process does not aim to break down subconscious barriers, but to induce a level of relaxation conducive to creativity where subjects are distracted from having to rationalize answers and thereby remove themselves, ostensibly, from the equation. "It's like playing make-believe as a child. You can elicit very rich, potent imagery that the respondent might not really understand, believing it's part of a game and could not possibly reflect his/her personality," described Sharon.
"The goal is to really explore peoples' deep feelings to understand the emotional end benefits associated with product features," Sharon summarized. Sharon pointed out that people buy because they unconsciously want to identify with a persona they create around a brand or product. The perceived persona is not static, but subjective to a type of individual or audience. "It's a badge where you borrow the image of the brand to project who you are as an individual," she stated.
Executive Solutions' impressive roster of clients, including Fortune 100s, suggests the user marketplace is receptive to these psychological MR approaches. Their high percentage of repeat business
"I've done a lot of telephone sessions and learned that sensitive issues that people have been reluctant to speak about in person, they are willing to share on the phone. In addition, people have a greater respect for authority over the phone," he observed. "When they come together in person, there is a tendency to lapse into that familiar `dinner table' dynamic where everyone competes for a piece of the conversation. But it's somewhat new to them when they get on the phone, so they give the moderator a little more control over the conversation."
Sharon submits that traditional telephone etiquette makes for a more orderly dialogue. "People are familiar with the phone. They know how to wait until someone responds, so they don't talk over one another," she said. In a typical telephone focus group, she detailed, each respondent also identifies him/herself before speaking. "I might say, `Sharon. After using the product, I broke out in a rash,' to which Sharon might respond, `Sharon. So did I. Where was yours?' `Sharon. On my hand,' and so on. It seems awkward, but it becomes quite natural. In some ways," she asserts, "it's more comfortable to speak on the phone than on camera. You aren't preoccupied with your appearance, for one thing."
"There's a certain amount of energy that goes into social interaction," said Sharon. "When I'm sitting face-to-face with you, the participant and moderator are aware of their posture, whether they're smiling, etc., whereas on the phone, those distractions are eliminated and they can put their energy into the task at hand."
Nonetheless, the absence of visual cues over the phone poses obvious problems. Sharon acknowledged this in citing statistics that suggest that only 7% of a communications message is verbal, while 38% comes from intonation and 55% is non-verbal. "I'm very visual," she admits, "so I had to train my ears to be my eyes. There are cues that you tune into when listening versus watching. You compensate by listening for pauses, breathing, sighs, laughter, the speed at which people talk, indicators of energy level, withdrawal," she described. "People tend to sit back in their seats when they lose interest. You can hear that if you know what to listen for."
Regardless of qualitative research mode, the Livingstons believe that respondents' comfort levels are more often dictated by the moderator's comfort level than the particularities of a communications channel. Not surprisingly, Sharon contends that personality variables and characteristics can make a moderator more effective in one medium versus another. "I'm probably better on the telephone because I need time to think after people respond," she admitted. "On the telephone, people tend to give you a longer time to think. In person, there is pressure to respond faster."
Sharon has a slightly different point of view, seeing herself as very adaptable to all moderator challenges. She enjoys the confrontations posed by each of method, but in the end feels "moderating skills are moderating skills. You adapt them to the medium."
Reproduced from the May 2002 issue of Research Business Report by RFL Communications, Inc. (Skokie, IL), which also publishes the MR newsletters Research Conference Report and Research Department Report. To find out more about these, please e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.rflonline.com or call RFL at (847) 673-6284.