In one of my more risqué moments of earning side cash while completing my graduate studies, I got to look at market campaign ads for K-Y Jelly. A group of about 10 women, including me, sat in a small room and commented about which ad appealed to us the most and why. While we wrote down our responses and then discussed them amongst ourselves, our discussions were monitored by observers sitting behind two-way mirrors. At the end of an hour, we exited the room and collected our $60 checks at the front desk. I ended up making $120 because I participated in two such ad campaigns.
Later on in my life, I participated in a weekly online market research survey that was conducted for Domino’s Pizza. Each week, I answered five multiple-choice questions about the company and/or its products. Each answered question earned me a dollar. At the end of the five week study, I had amassed a tidy $25 which was paid to me via Paypal.
In both the cases noted above, I participated in a consumer focus group.
What are consumer focus groups?
Companies that are about to launch a new or improved product typically gather consumer feedback about that product prior to launch. This helps tweak the product to fit different consumer needs and/or address concerns. Consumer focus groups typically consist of 8-20 members that match certain demographic requirements (e.g., a strong likelihood of using the product). These group members are asked questions by a moderator after reviewing the given product; their responses are recorded and analyzed via (usually) hidden third-party observers. For their efforts, focus group members are paid quite well, with some members earning as much as $100/hour.
Consumer focus groups used to operate strictly on-location in big cities like Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta. Focus group participants would have to go in person to designated locations and spend anywhere from half an hour to even several hours on-site. Back then, most companies feared that online focus groups, where participants were unseen and unwatched, would dilute data quality. Today however, many (though not all) companies prefer the online consumer group format, feeling that it encourages a truer response because the participant is not being affected by the act of observation (also known as the observer effect). This is great news for folks who wish to work from home or who reside in rural locations.
How you can get involved in consumer focus groups
There are several well-known market research companies that regularly recruit focus group participants. In some cases, the companies operate both online and in-person focus groups. Here is a list of companies that you could consider:
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20/20 Panel: This company has been operating since 1986 and pays $50-$150 per focus session, which may be performed through in-person focus groups, one-on-one interviews or online sessions. The studies can involve a few hours of your time and/or may also be spread out over the course of one to several days. Prescreening (i.e., filling out a short qualification survey) is required if you wish to be considered for inclusion in an upcoming focus group or product test.
Adler Weiner Research: This marketing research company offers in-person focus groups in the Chicagoland and Los Angeles areas. The reported pay for 1-2 hour focus group participation ranges from $100-$200.
FocusGroup: This site pays $75-$150 for each successfully completed survey. Participants must take an “eligibility screener” before being assigned to any online studies and must later pass four stages of screening.
MindSwarms: This site has you answer in-home survey questions for $50/survey. However, you must answer these question via your webcam, which means that you must have your computer set up to record audio and play video. Surveys are estimated to take about 20 minutes and require a prescreening.
Nichols Research: This San Francisco area company pays its participants $225+ for focus group studies that run as long as 8 hours. From what I can determine, Nichols Research offers no online focus groups.
Plaza Research: This company conducts in-person focus group discussions, telephone and in-home interviews and online surveys. The focus group sessions last roughly 1.5 hours and pay $100+.
Manufacturer-based consumer focus groups
Major manufacturers often offer their own market panel opportunities via their corporate websites. Here are just a few manufacturers that you can work with to earn extra cash and/or receive free product:
General Mills: This company offers consumers the opportunity to try new products, answers surveys and even coordinate a “house party” to test/try GM products.
New Balance: If you are a runner and are willing to test out some sneakers for cash and/or other incentives, this is the place to go.
Tide: At this site, you can sign up to participate in Tide research studies.
Consumer focus group drawbacks
Because consumer focus groups pay rather well, competition for these work opportunities can be stiff. Thus, it’s best if you sign up with several market research companies and even follow them on Twitter or Facebook. If you are notified of a focus group opportunity, don’t delay in applying for it as spaces often fill up quickly. Also, in some cases the market research companies will overbook their participants; however, participants who show up and are turned away are usually compensated for their trouble.
Focus group screenings can take up a significant portion of your time, from filling out your personal information online to answering questions on the phone to filling out additional paperwork before you are finally “cleared” for the study. Disqualification can result from something as simple as not having the right type of smartphone. Fortunately, with many focus group sessions being conducted online, you’re less likely to get stuck clearing your work schedule and traveling downtown only to later find out that you’re not eligible for a particular study.