Focus-group Dynamics


November 10, 1991|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Anytime you convene a group of people in a room in front of one-way mirror wall through which they are being watched by another group of people, it's possible that something completely unexpected will emerge. Or so reasoned A. M. Chaplin, which is why she asked most of the moderators she spoke to during the research for her focus-group story if they had any Big Surprise stories to tell.

Most of their replies had to do with group participants expressing opinions or beliefs that no one had anticipated. Sometimes, though, the Big Surprise had nothing to do with the group's attitudes, as in these two anecdotes from Bethesda's Naomi Henderson, a group moderator and president of RIVA Market Research Inc.:

Part way through one group discussion she was moderating, Ms. Henderson heard a "smashing, clattering and clanking sound" and turned around to see the mirror wall behind her shattered and a mortified young man sprawled on the floor where the wall had been. He'd either slipped or been pushed, Ms. Henderson says, but whichever it was, the group was over and perhaps the young man's marketing career as well.

During another group in the same city, the lights suddenly went out as a result of a thunderstorm. Like many focus-group rooms, this one was windowless, and the dark was absolute. One person began to scream in terror, but fortunately her neighbor was "one of those practical women the South produces," Ms. Henderson says. "She whips out her big lighter and says, 'Woman, hold this and shut up,' " and led the terrified person down 15 flights of steps onto the rain-swept street.

"Both these groups were in Atlanta," Ms. Henderson adds with a chuckle. "For me Atlanta is a hazardous-duty zone."

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