A guest post by Maya Middlemiss
I’ve always been proud of the work I do. Having founded Saros Research at the start of the millennium, we’ve now recruited thousands of people into paid qualitative market research events across the UK in the past 12 years. People have always enjoyed taking part in these focus groups, product testing and software trials… but the language and consumer culture about that involvement has changed so much in recent years.
A decade ago, on the back of new labour and the idea of focus-group-driven political decision-making, the concept of group consultation was somewhat devalued in many people’s minds. A bit of a joke, and used to justify any amount of bad ideas in retrospect. And for a lot of people that was the only context in which they had heard of a focus group anyway, as a tool for political policy development. Back then the qualitative research recruitment industry was very different, essentially a cottage industry, where selection to this mysterious world depended on knowing someone who knew someone who recruited them.
This lead to all kinds of problems for the researchers, as they ended up seeing the same faces too often, and people being ‘adapted’ to fit profiles by the occasional lazy recruiter. However it also meant that most people never got a look-in at all, and as such their views were not represented in the development of new products and services. It was hard for brands to get effective feedback from the vast majority of their actual – never mind potential – customer base.
Back then market research meant that poor woman on the street corner with the clipboard, whom you avoided most of the time – go on, admit it! – by hastily crossing the road, gluing your eyes to the pavement, or suddenly chattering loudly into one of those mobile phones that flipped out at the bottom.
How different today, when you can barely move around the online space without bumping into a survey of some kind, but most importantly, the qualitative side has opened up as well. With companies like Saros Research, being able to apply for well-paid research projects doesn’t depend on who you know, and anyone can register to receive invitations.
But the really interesting thing is the language and experience around consumer rights and thrift that has made people not only eager to take part in a focus group and get £40 for discussing shampoo for 2 hours, it’s also made them proud of it. Happy to tell their friends, on and offline, and pleased to be ‘in the know’ about new developments and how advertising and other communications are developed.
It isn’t just being able to point to a billboard or fixture some months later and say ‘I did that’ (or occasionally, ‘why on earth did they run with that version when we all hated it?’), people are genuinely pleased to have been selected, and even to talk about the payment involved. The whole idea used to be a bit of a cliché – something downmarket housewives did, eating stale sandwiches in other people’s living rooms. Even if you did take part you wouldn’t want to tell your friends about it. Paid to discuss lavatory cleaner..! Shut up and take the money, which always came in handy – but you wouldn’t talk to your friend about money anyway, not back then.
Recession-bitten, credit-crunched Britain is very different. Nowadays people are proud and happy to share thrift tips and discount vouchers with their friends, to help someone secure a bargain or save a few quid is to genuinely help them out. Even the language of advertising and marketing has changed – can you imagine a supermarket in the 80s or 90s ever suggesting that ‘every little helps’… we didn’t (or wouldn’t admit) to needing or wanting any help, large or small.
Forget the demographic clichés too, nowadays not only do brands need to consult ever more widely and rapidly with their quickly changing and fickle customer base, but also research participants come from every imaginable background and walk of life. Society has changed and become both much more socially mobile, and more fragmented. When I started in the industry, every project was specified by ‘socio economic class’ – A, B, C1, C2, D or E. Your place in the hierarchy of consumers was dictated by your qualifications and how many people’s work you managed, that tended to map fairly well onto how much you earned and could spend.
Nowadays, whilst this classification is still in use, we are far more likely to get a quota defined pragmatically by income alone. After all, the plumber charging £90 an hour cash in hand has far more to spend than the penniless academic, and she might well have a degree too, but then found that fixing u-bends made for a more lucrative and satisfying career! And her skilled manual talents will keep her constantly in demand as more and more of us make our living in non-manual ‘C1’ type desk jobs, whether we are a hugely well-paid consultant or a call-centre slave.
The classification system means less and less every year.
Whilst all of us are having to live with a great deal more stress and uncertainty in our lives than previously, remember the ancient Chinese symbol that combines the element of opportunity with threat, in the symbol for crisis. Every one of us (believe me the research industry is no different) longs to see an end to these recessionary times. But if there is any lasting legacy from these turbulent years, I hope that the embracing of smart consumerism, thrift and actively engaging with people selling us stuff, will be something that continues, as the long-awaited economic recovery finally happens.
You can find Maya at www.sarosresearch.com