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Fielding Questions

When laboratory-like focus groups aren't cutting it, you need operatives in the field.
Magazine Contributor
2 min read

This story appears in the September 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

So a pollster walks into a bar . . . no, really. He wants to find out what kind of bourbon fills your highball glass, and the old "sit around a conference table in a hermetically sealed conference room" method just ain't gonna cut it. Because no human makes buying decisions in front of a two-way mirror, traditional focus groups have evolved into a much more hands-on and relevant process.

Hoping to get a grasp on their audiences' tastes, companies are using a plethora of investigative methods to try to understand what makes their target demographic scream "I must have it!" Some send anthropologists into the field to observe consumers in their element. Others use online surveys to get immediate results at low costs. "The new methods are attempts to get closer to the consumer. The closer a researcher gets, the better the data will be for understanding needs, attitudes and behavior," says Doug Magee, vice president of research for public relations and advertising firm MGA Communications in Denver."

Corporations are using innovative techniques and going right to the source of behavior: the consumer actively making a choice. To mine information for Maker's Mark, a bourbon distillery, Louisville, Kentucky-based advertising agency Doe Anderson Inc. hit the bars to talk with drinkers. "You're better able to link attitudes and behavior because you're in an environment in which you can collect data on both," says Jim White, Doe Anderson's director of account planning."

Entrepreneurs can't afford to put up 20 target customers in a trendy loft for the weekend to study their attitudes, as Hostess Frito Lay, Pepsi and Wrigley did, but there are ways to extrapolate the wisdom of large corporations and put it to work in small-business settings. Consider the venues Doe Anderson has frequented: bars, bowling alleys, parking lots and college dorm rooms-all sites small-business owners can quite easily infiltrate for their own qualitative research."

When you head out to ascertain exactly what your target demographic drools over, keep in mind the advice White learned from visits to an Atlanta nightspot: Put your papers in plastic sleeves, and bring a good flashlight. "Stuff gets spilled in the real world," warns White, "and the light's not so good for interviewing bar patrons at 2 a.m.""

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