Life After the Focus Group

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Robin Robinson

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BY ROBIN ROBINSON

IS THE FOCUS GROUP DEAD OR JUST DECLINING?

While some people say the focus group is dead, others say it will never entirely disappear. Their opinions hinge on what position they hold in the market research process and what objective the research is trying to meet (turn to page 32). Six years ago, Tom “TJ” Scott, director of new practices and corporate analytics/commercial insights at AstraZeneca, was working on a brand team, and at that time he regularly used focus groups for earlystage market research. “Clearly, there are reasons to have an in person focus group when evaluating creative pieces, working through what’s the right color, or determining how the message comes across to the customer,” Mr. Scott says. When he moved into the innovative new practices group, the objective for market research also was changing. “We began looking at broader concepts, getting reactions from doctors and trying to avoid peer bias that occurs when sitting next to someone in the same room,” Mr. Scott says. “So, for me, the in person focus group is antiquated.” Mr. Scott’s group has been successfully using WebEx conferencing to conduct online focus groups for the past four years. “In person focus groups still definitely work for the very early stages of development, when we want to see a face and use facial reactions as a cue to probe more, but unless we need to see facial reactions, I don’t know why else we would do traditional focus groups.” Mr. Scott’s story sums up the complexity surrounding the focus group debate. For almost a decade, across all industries, there have been reports that the focus group or the inperson interview may no longer be the best option. According to Matthew Carpenter, executive director, customer and competitor insights, Wyeth, the focus group is alive and well in pharma market research; however, what he has observed is that there are now many more options available to meet varied market research objectives, and researchers should be fitting the tool to the need. Life after the FOCUS GROUP With newer, more cost efficient methods for gaining customer insights on the rise, the use of traditional focus groups within pharma faces a decline. Using our own form of qualitative research, PharmaVOICE polled several experts in the field to determine the extent to which the use of the market research focus group is on the decline. Our definitive answer: it all depends. NOTHING PREDICTS BEHAVIOR LIKE BEHAVIOR,and simulating behavior in online surveys and virtual communities is the next best thing to reality. ROGER GREEN ROGER GREEN AND ASSOCIATES PharmaVOICE “There have been a lot of technologies and new approaches added to the pharma toolbox over the past five years, such as ethnography, patient/physician, and emotional research,” he says. “The focus group may be dead in certain situations but the overall consensus is that it’s not. It still has an important place in research, and choosing which method to use goes back to what needs to be accomplished.” The point of focus groups, from the very beginning, is to gain insights that will help position products, says S. Kent Stephan, CEO of Princeton Brand Econometrics. “Focus groups were conducted back in the day to try to pick up insights that would generate more business than if the PI sheets were just sent out,” he says. “What focus groups and other qualitative techniques are really good at — and nothing else can replace them — is gaining insights to help position a product.” Mr. Stephan says he is concerned that the industry is moving away from this type of research as a way to save money. “There seems to be an overemphasis on cost savings, and now companies have buying groups that are making the decisions on what research is to be done, as though it were a commodity,” he says. “In our forecasting work, we have metrics that show a well positioned product can beat the PI sheet by as much as 30%, given the same level of promotion. So saving a few bucks in the beginning can easily cost many millions over the life of the brand.” Cost is not the only factor involved in the decline of focus groups, says John Tapper, Ph.D, CEO of Ziment. According to Dr. Tap per, the focus group has not been a dominant form of market research in the pharma industry for quite a while, for a number of reasons. One reason is that effectively monitoring a large focus group requires skills and experience that not all moderators possess in the beginning, which results in the conducting of more one on one interviews. “In the early days of healthcare market research, there were a lot of inexperienced people who were not formerly trained to be moderators,” he says. “Therefore, it was a lot easier for the inexperienced marketers to control one on one interviews, so these became popular. Then these formats became the default.” Debra Kossman, Ph.D., senior VP at National Analysts Worldwide, has a similar observation. “Focus groups are not completely going by the wayside, but the business questions driv ing research these days are often better answered using other available techniques,” she says. SPEED, ECONOMY, AND MORE ACCURATE REPORTING OF ACTUAL BEHAVIOR are overwhelming benefits of the newer research methods. DR.DEBRA KOSSMAN NATIONAL ANALYSTS WORLDWIDE MARKET research All of our experts report a greater use of triads or one on one interviews, referred to as IDIs, over the more traditional method of gathering a large number of people in one room and interviewing them as a group. Two driving factors for this trend are cost and need. “Oneonone interviewing is not particularly new, but it seems to be the dominant practice in the industry,” Dr. Tapper says. Mr. Carpenter agrees that the trend has been toward more triad research with only two to three physicians as opposed to six to nine in a group. “These are very effective sessions, especially if the disease is treated by multiple special ties,” he says. “Bringing two or three specialists together to talk about case studies and introduce one or two patients into the discussion can be very valuable, maybe more so in person than online.” Wes Michael, executive VP, research excellence, at TNS Healthcare, believes face to face focus groups remain a useful research technique; they have their place, especially when group interaction and idea generation help shed more light on treatment areas. He says the IDI tends to be used more often in pharma research now, for several reasons. “Many questions require an individual response — for example, a response to a mock detail aid or new product profile — mirroring realworld situations, rather than a group response,” he says. “And more and more research is conducted among harder to recruit respondents where it is not always feasible to gather several respondents at the same place on the same day and time. “In addition to standard questions and answers, it is extremely useful to measure commitment — not just what physicians will prescribe and patients will request, but how committed they are to their current medications, which helps predict whether they will stick with the product in the face of new introductions, competitive generic entries, etc.,” he continues. “Because commitment is an attitudinal measure, rather than a behavioral measure, it lets companies predict future prescribing, rather than just look back through a rear view mirror at past actions.” DRIVERS RESPONSIBLE FOR CHANGING THE FOCUS GROUP DYNAMIC One of the drivers for the decline in use of focus groups is the shift in marketing focus, but Dr. Tapper cautions against abandoning the focus group entirely. Marketers have been focusing on gathering indepth information on a more personal level, but they may be missing the commonalities that show up in larger group settings. Since the data collected from large groups of doctors or patients uncover what is shared across the group, and not the individual, marketers tend not to use the data from a focus group. “Sometimes this may be the correct approach and sometimes it is very shortsighted,” Dr. Tapper says. “Generally, the industry markets to groups of patients and groups of doctors, and finding out what they have in common can be a really good insight.” Market researchers also are seeking more process research, data that cannot be collected efficiently in a focus group, Dr. Kossman says. In this case, a decision maker or prescriber is asked to go through the steps of diagnosing, treating, and following up with patients. As so called buying process research has become a larger proportion of all market research projects, the need to rely on individual interviews has increased. “At times, there is a research need that doesn’t lend itself to a group discussion,” she says.“I think this is the main reason for the shift away from the focus group.” That being said, cost is still one of the biggest drivers behind the drop in the use of the focus group, our experts say. Post9/11 travel restrictions and overall travel cuts have required researchers to find new ways of gaining insights without transporting people to a central area. “Online video is a way to interact as realistically as possible without having to travel,” Dr. Kossman says. “Marketers are attempting to do as much as they can within tighter bud gets, and reducing travel costs helps.” Mr. Scott from AstraZeneca says cost containment measures across the industry have forced many brand teams to be open to new methods. THE CHALLENGE WILL BE DESIGNING AND INTEGRATING AN ACCURATE FOCUS GROUP TO GET A 360 DEGREE VIEW of the product and make it appealing across multiple decision makers. S.KENT STEPHAN PRINCETON BRAND ECONOMETRICS MATTHEW CARPENTER, WYETH Qualitative research is really good at — AND NOTHING ELSE CAN REPLACE IT — gaining insights to help position the product. MARKET research “To reduce travel costs people had to figure out a way to get the job done without traveling,” he says. “Now, no one has to go to Baltimore, or Dallas, or San Francisco, and we can conduct the interviews from anywhere — even my kitchen. This access was an initial driver for me, but now that I have discovered how great online works, I am convinced that I am not missing anything by not having in person interviews.” VIRTUAL TECHNIQUES ON THE RISE Roger Green, CEO of Roger Green and Associates, notes that it is natural for industries feeling the pinch to shift away from large quantitative studies that devote extensive analysis and lots of research dollars to answering a single question. Instead they gravitate toward less expensive qualitative information for single questions and syndicated research for simple numbers. “A better strategy may be to mix and match specific research elements that can be modeled to represent how the world works more accurately,” he says. For example, Mr. Green says a market simulation technique where physicians are asked to treat members of a virtual pool of simulated patients — complete with medical charts — can produce better results. Researchers can build a data set of 2,000 to 3,000 simulated treatment events, and analyze these data to address major issues, such as pricing, positioning, clinical trial design, forecasting, or the value of segmentation. Mr. Green says more pharmaceutical companies are requesting this type of research. Virtual research opportunities also include video diaries, blog monitoring, virtual Velcro or white boards for packaging and product design, chat rooms, and panel discussions, to name just a few. All of these methods create situations as realistically as possible in an artificial setting to explore the thinking behind physician or con sumer decision making and provide the opportunity to dig deeper into emotional behavior. “Research using virtual reality technology can put doctors in a diagnostic mode with a virtual patient with virtual charts and they can simulate what they do every day; however, the important aspect is that researchers can stop them at any time and question them about their motivations,” Dr. Tapper says. “This can’t be done in person or over the phone.” Researchers have long been posting product materials on a Velcro board at a central facility to test doctor and consumer reactions, and now this can be done online much more efficiently with what Dr. Tapper calls virtual Velcro or white boards. “Moving the materials around online is very engaging for doctors, and the benefits are substantive, intelligent results,” he says. Blog monitoring is also on the rise, with more clients requesting methods that tap into patients and what they say to one another when they are not in a research setting. The information received from the blogs is not NO TECHNIQUE IS THE OVERALL BEST TECHNIQUE. The key is to apply the best techniques to the business issue. THE FOCUS GROUP HAS NOT BEEN A PARTICULARLY POPULAR METHOD of generating consumer insights into healthcare for quite some time. WESMICHAEL, TNS HEALTHCARE DR.JOHNTAPPER, ZIMENT CHANGING THE CONVERSATION The communications strategy is pretty simple, he says: getting the industry’s employees to talk about why they are inspired to work in this business and backing their assertions up with facts and figures. Mr. Pucci believes some of the most important conversations are those that happen in a social context. “Everyone in the industry has been pumped by a friend or family member for information or has been asked to provide an answer to a question or address an issue that is making news in the media,” he says. “They want answers; they want our perspective. Answering those questions in a way that provides context and a message around value as to why we do what we do is the challenge. Sometimes it’s important to talk about value; sometimes it’s much more important to talk about access and affordability. Sometimes the conversation is about how companies are connecting with people through the industry’s patient assistance program. There are a number of ways that people can respond and this is part of the training that we are providing. The industry needs to teach its employees how to answer the questions in a way that’s most appropriate to the person who is asking the question.” Mr. Pucci says, first and foremost, his goal has been to keep the education simple. “The basis for the training is to give people the data and the facts,” he says. “I have found that more than 50% of the questions that are likely to arise, especially from consumers, have to do with the price versus value issue. So we developed a triangle formula: we put price at the top and then we draw a line to the left and we put value, and then we draw a line from price down to the right and we put we care. It’s a model that everyone can remember.” Mr. Pucci says another important part of answering the price question is knowing who is doing the asking. There are two broad categories: those who have insurance and those who are advocates for the uninsured and poor. “If talking to the former, the conversation should be about value; if talking to an advocate for the poor, move the discussion to compassion; it’s important to make a connection and that they know you care on the most basic human level,” he says. “Talk about how the industry has helped more than 7 million people through the Partnership for Prescription Assistance pro gram. We have to listen, we have to understand who we’re talking to, and we have to tailor the conversation around value or compassion.” If you have been lucky enough to hear one of Mr. Pucci’s presentations, you no doubt recall his favorite story about his Aunt Laurie. “She’s 78 years old and she’s a pistol,” he says. “At one family gathering, knowing full well that I work in the pharmaceutical industry, Aunt Laurie takes me aside and starts to complain about the cost of her Fosamax. I know she can afford the medicine, but I let her go on for a bit. And rather than debate her, I asked her if it’s worth $1.50 a day to keep her from potentially breaking a hip in a fall, keeping her out of the hospital for weeks, and preventing her from potentially dying. This was the end of the conversation. “When appropriate this is one way to put the value of medicine into context for people,” Mr. Pucci says. “It’s amazing how often these types of conversations pop up. And the frequency is only going to increase after the November election when I predict healthcare reform replaces Iraq as the No. 1 issue in America. I also believe, as an industry, we are in a better position than ever before to respond with a statement of value.” MICHAEL Pucci The industry needs to teach its employees how to answer the questions in a way that’s most appropriate to the person who is asking the question.” “

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