A Practical Approach To Identifying Professional Focus Group Participants

Published in MRA Alert Newsletter, February, 2003

One of the most troubling issues facing the focus group industry in recent years has been the increasing presence of the professional respondent. This individual is defined as a person who finds a way to regularly participate in focus groups (perhaps as many as two-four per week) by registering at different facilities in a metropolitan area, and then being sufficiently familiar with the system so they will answer questions that enable them to “qualify” for many more groups than they would normally be selected for participation.

The biggest problems with the professional participant is that they become so familiar with the focus group process that they do not tend to act in a group as would their “non-professional” peers. Most of them are able to anticipate the answers that they feel the moderator would like to hear, and try to provide them in order to make the output of the session appear to be as favorable as possible. Others simply try to act like marketing or research professionals rather than the subjects they were recruited to be, and therefore do not provide their own perspective on a topic, but rather what they feel the client needs to hear about the topic, whether or not it is consistent with their own views. Needless to say, the involvement of professional participants in focus groups is very detrimental to the overall process, and has been a topic of concern for many years.

Unfortunately, despite the attempts of some facilities, and at least one independent auditing organization, the problem of identifying and weeding out the professional participant has not improved dramatically in recent years. As a result, some organizations are very wary about utilizing focus groups, particularly in the consumer segment, because of the influence of these people.

The purpose of this piece is to suggest a new approach to dealing with the issue of the professional participant, which may never be perfect, but if implemented, we believe should dramatically improve the situation versus where it is at the present time. The reason we believe this new approach can work is that the dynamics of the focus group facility market have been changing in recent years, and we believe will continue to evolve in the near future. Specifically:

∙There clearly has been an increasingly important role of the chain focus group facility in recent years. While I am not aware of any specific data that has been published that identifies the share of market accounted for by the chains, there is little question that it is dramatically higher than only three-five years ago, and probably accounts for more than 70% of all facility volume.


∙All focus group facilities have recognized the importance of computerization, and have acccepted the PC and Internet as a regular part of their process. This includes the record keeping relative to focus group participants, and the communications between the facility personnel and clients, sub-contractors and other facilities.

Recommended Program - We believe the leadership for addressing and solving the “professional respondent” problem should come from the facility side of the industry, perhaps with the assistance of one or more industry associations (i.e., MRA, ARF, CASRO, QRCA). The essence of the program I am recommending be developed consists of the following specific elements:



A Practical Approach To Identifying Professional Focus Group Participants


A commitment by all focus group facilities and independent recruiters to alert all prospective participants that they will require a state issued photo ID when they come to a facility to sign into a group. They also will be informed that their name will be put into a computer data base that will track their participation in focus groups everywhere, and that if they are caught falsifying information to any sponsoring facility, they will be red flagged and never permitted to participate again.

The development and use of a common data base that will collect the names of all people who have been recruited for focus groups. This list will only be available to recruiters and facilities, as the purpose is to screen out people with prior participation, should that be a requirement of the client screener. The key to this step is that all the major chains are willing to share their recruitment information, so that “professional participants” can be identified and eliminated from the system. The cost of developing, managing and utilizing this system should be borne by the facilities who offer it to their clients, with the understanding that a reasonable cost/group will be added to each session to help amortize the cost of this service. Those facilities who do not offer it will eventually feel the pressure from their clients, and should join the program, thus further increasing the accuracy of the system.

The actual implementation details of how this type of system would work would have to be developed, but the concept is that names could be put into a terminal and within a few seconds, information should be available relative to the past participation of the individual in focus groups.

While this type of program is neither fool proof, nor error free, we do believe it would represent a major step forward for the focus group industry. Importantly, it would serve to raise the overall stature of the facility members, as they would send a message to current and prospective clients that they are committed to providing the best possible recruiting, and have taken specific steps to eliminate the professional respondent. The end result of this should be to increase the overall confidence in the validity of the focus group process, which should generate increased business for the entire industry. Over time, the costs of operating this type of system should be viewed as a very small expense associated with maintaining a high quality recruitment program.