Good Participants Versus Good Research: There’s a Difference

Working in market research for the past 15 years, I can tell you this. At the end of every qualitative market research project, we want to be afforded the chance to put together a killer report. No questions there.

Those of you who work in qualitative research know what I am talking about. A report that includes a boatload of articulate quotes, and pages upon pages of insights from your conversations. All driven by the perfect pool of participants recruited for your focus groups. A series of focus groups where every single participant quickly rattles off 4 or 5 golden quotes that are a simple cut and paste into your PowerPoint.

It’s the kind of report you pass to your boss, and she simply raves about it.

“Where did you find these awesome participants?”

“These quotes are unbelievable.”

The positive comments go on and on. We all dream about this, don’t we?

Isn’t that what every market researcher strives for?

What if I told you that the report you just gave your boss is complete garbage?

Good Participants Versus Good Research: There’s a Difference

Your customers are a variety of all types of personalities, therefore those who join a market research study should reflect that. Introverts' opinions matter as much as extroverts' opinions. Remember this before recruiting professional market research participants.

Professional Market Research Participants? No, Thank You.

Enter the world of professional survey takers and professional market research participants. Unfortunately, some market researchers struggle to understand the difference between good research, and a good report. And this is a growing problem in our industry.

These professionals may provide a wealth of feedback and high show rates because they’ve done focus groups a hundred times before, but is it worth it?

The goal of focus groups and qualitative research is not to put together a group of the most well-spoken, articulate, and extroverted participants. The purpose of qualitative research is to put together a group that is representative of your target audience so you can begin to explore their emotions, behaviors, and feelings behind your brand or product.

Then strategy can be developed to use the sample of insights and cast it to a population.

Yet, time and time again we see screeners that work to disqualify participants if they are not articulate, not talkative enough, not comfortable in a group setting, etc. etc. The list goes on and on. Taking a step back it's almost claiming that introverts simply to do not buy any products or services and we should ignore their opinion.

But it’s not just the outspoken focus group participants buying your product. It’s the introverts, it’s the inarticulate participants, it’s the participants who rant, it’s the participants who are short, and to the point, it’s the participant who has a short attention span.

I understand that we don't want to put together a group of 12 duds and have every interaction be a battle, but not everyone needs to be an extreme extrovert in order for them to be deemed a quality participant.

Sometimes it is too easy to blame the participant for not being outspoken enough or not giving the moderator enough detail on open-ends. But at the same time, as a moderator, you have to take responsibility for asking the right questions and manage a conversation to extract those insights you need. Find out what makes each participant tick to squeeze out the details.

Essentially, your customers are a variety of all types of personalities — not just the ones who give you golden nuggets of comments and quotes for your report.

By relying on panel respondents and A+ focus group participants too frequently, research continues to veer further and further away from typical consumers and more towards fulfilling the researcher's needs.

"I want a group of outstanding professional focus group participants so I can feel good about my findings and have an easy time moderating".

Getting people to talk and explain the reasons for making choices, emotions about a brand, etc. can be tough. But it shouldn't mean we stop trying to talk to them and take the easy route out by filling qualitative research with professional participants.

Here are 10 must-have qualities of a focus group moderator.

Self-Service Recruiting Platforms Are Adding to the Problem

With the number of emerging self-service platforms, recruiting participants for focus groups has never been easier but it also creates real issues. Because in a lot of cases, these self-service panels are riddled with full-time professional market research participants.

Responding to and participating in every study possible. Knowing what it takes to qualify, what researchers like to hear, and how to earn more cash to be eligible for follow-up research. 

Why Sourcing Research Participants with Facebook is Better Than Online Panels.

Two Examples: Which One is Better?

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is through a fairly simple, and exaggerated analogy. But it will address the point.

The good research example:

Let’s say you are Campbell’s soup, and you are looking to recruit a group of 20 participants who cook in their kitchen at home at least three times a week. Your target audience is mothers with children, and the topic of the discussion is how you use Campbell’s products to assist with your recipes. The ultimate goal is to show consumers how basic Campbell's products can be used to make outstanding 5-star dishes.

You recruit a group of 20 moms, and some are great cooks, some are terrible cooks, some use Campbell’s a lot, some just a few times a year, some are very outspoken, some are uneducated and cannot quite fully explain why they love or hate Campbell’s.

However, you work hard to challenge the participants who are typically considered poor quality, and you navigate your way into some deeper insights you would not have gotten otherwise. Your findings are representative of your target market, and you make recommendations for a new campaign launch using these insights. You understand what messages you need to market to the inexperienced cooks, what messages work best for moms with kids, and what messages work best for the Millennial couples with newborns who cook at home every night of the week.

The campaign is raving success because you were able to draw findings from a representative audience with a number of different personalities.

The good participant example:

Same situation, but you have shifted your focus from good research to getting good participants. Remember, your ultimate goal is to show consumers how basic Campbell's products can be used to make outstanding 5-star dishes. So instead of recruiting 20 participants who are mothers with children, you attract professional chefs who work at local restaurants.

Who better to showcase how to create 5-star dishes for consumers? Therefore, you shifted your focus to acquiring great participants. All 20 participants are excellent. They are articulate, go into great detail on reasons they like or dislike Campbell’s, and they are all offering you outstanding quotes as you are already thinking about getting started on your report.

These high-quality participants are perfect. You take those findings and make recommendations for a new campaign launch using these insights. The campaign fails miserably because the participants you received feedback from were all high-quality, but they all fit the same profile and were all over-qualified to answer your questions. The findings are not representative of your target audience.

On paper, a group of 20 of these participants makes for a kick-ass report. But basing your entire re-brand strategy from your qualitative report recommendations on these 20 participants is a giant mistake. These professional panel participants could not be further from your real-life consumer.

It's a bit like basing a marketing strategy on talkative and articulate extroverts and ignoring the bigger picture right?

Another simple example is, let's say you have 2 men looking to buy a Lexus.

One is articulate and can express why he loves the Lexus brand to you when you ask during your research interview. The other cannot expand on his feelings and is very short and curt with his reasons. It is clear both participants love Lexus.

Is either of those 2 customers less likely to buy a Lexus simply because their personality is different and one is more articulate than others? No.

Can we assume the outspoken buyer shares the same exact reasons for affinity for the introvert and he was just better at expressing those feelings? No. And dangerous.

The feedback they provide (little or a lot) is equally as important even though one is deemed a perfect research participant and the other is deemed terrible.

In our opinion and from the perspective of good research, there is no such thing as a poor quality participant. The only definition of a poor quality participant is pretty cut and dry: a person who speeds through a survey, does not care about his or her answers, has other intentions, lies, etc.

Just because a participant is not overly talkative doesn't constitute as a poor quality participant. He or she just takes a different approach to extract insights. It takes a moderator or interviewer who can connect and tweeze out insights properly from a conversation.

Poor Quality Participants and the Obligation of a Good Moderator

As a moderator and qualitative interviewer, we have to take more responsibility to use interviewing skills to draw insights and communicate with tough participants to understand them. It’s too easy to blame the participant hoping to be hand-fed quotes.

It’s also easy to blame the recruitment screening process. What is considered a poor quality participant is still a real-life consumer of your brand. One that could choose to purchase or not purchase your product, and you need to find out why as a moderator.

Here are a few tips for dealing with poor quality or difficult participants in qualitative research:

  1. First off, make sacrifices for them. We far too often see brands looking to schedule consumer interviews during daytime business hours because the moderator and his or her team does not want to be inconvenienced after-hours. We understand this can be a limitation if you are hosting a number of IDIs, but if you are hosting 2 focus groups, both can easily be conducted after-hours. Thinking about the consumer and their schedule first, over yours, sets a tone. A consumer who knows you are sacrificing your time to interview at a more convenient time for them (i.e., 7:00 p.m. after work) matters. It builds some unspoken rapport right out the gate. We have never told a consumer "no" if they request to do an IDI after 5:00 p.m.
  2. Learn to interrupt without being rude. It’s a delicate line to walk when moderating, and you might be dealing with participants who love to talk your ear off. Jump in and mention that you would like to keep us on schedule to ensure we can get you out of here in the 45-minutes minutes you promised often works. Another tip is to use unspoken gestures. Stop with your eye contact for a few extra seconds, look down at your guide and point to start reading your next question, and slowly raise your hand to show you are ready to move to the next point. Unspoken gestures can often make your point for you.
  3. Do not mistake participants who cannot express their thoughts or feelings adequately as poor participants. It is where you need to ask the question differently or rephrase the language to connect with them on a different level to get the responses you need. Not everyone responds the same way, so think about it as instead of asking the question at a Ph.D. level, bring it down to a third-grade level to get an immediate reaction. Plenty of consumers cannot express why they like a product or brand initially. Emotions and feelings can be uncomfortable to explain to a stranger in a facility setting with a one-way mirror. Much of this is subconscious and unrealized. It’s your job to ask why and dig deeper to get closer to those drivers until you get that ah-ha moment.


The goal of your market research should not be putting together a cake report because it’s based on 20 professional panel participants. Getting a representative view of your consumer audience is critical in market research, and sometimes that means having tough conversations with everyday consumers who are not articulate and do not fit the mold of a perfect focus group participant.

If you expect to get a group of outspoken and highly articulate research participants in your screener, pause and ask yourself if you want that for the right reasons. Are you looking to put together a great report and have your project viewed positively by your boss or client? Or is hosting a group that is representative of your target audience with all types of personalities better for your market research which creates a more rewarding challenge as a moderator?

Our job is to make recommendations based on insights from a sample of a representative audience. Our findings need to be accurate, representative, reliable, and authentic. Our job as a market researcher is not to put a group of 20 professional market research participants who all fit the same mold and couldn’t be further from the typical everyday consumer you are selling to.

I challenge you during your next qualitative market research project to think about this. The next time you have an introvert, a tough to deal with participant, or what you typically deem a poor quality participant, stop and think a little bit. 

If you are a national brand, there could be 100,000+ other consumers out there buying your product just like this guy in front of you. Why should his opinions and quotes be valued any less than that extrovert who just talked your ear off last time slot? 

The answer is, they shouldn’t be any less important. 

A consumer is a consumer. High-quality research participant or low-quality research participant, they are still a consumer.

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Drive Research is a market research agency in the U.S. that works with clients all over the country. We work closely with brands to ensure they put their best foot forward with a research program, helping them understand all trade-offs. Need a market research quote? Have a request for a proposal? Contact us.

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Qualitative Recruiting