Focus Groups in Asia

Rod Davies

So you need to run a focus group among existing or prospective consumers or in an industrial sector? We have compiled below some tips and advice for running successful market research focus groups based on our work in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia and Indonesia over many years. It is written for the manager who needs to know what is involved, especially in Asian markets. Many thanks to lead market researchers and moderators at Orient Pacific Century for their contributions and advice.

Rod Davies: First Published 1998; Updated 4th September 2002

Rod Davies Rod Davies leads the Market Research and Strategy activities of OPC. He is editor of the Asia Pacific Management Forum, Asia Market Research dot com, and co-editor of Branding Asia dot com. He is based in South East Asia.

Orient Pacific Century specializes in market research in Asia, particularly in ASEAN countries. OPC provides strategic marketing consulting incorporating feasibility studies, competitive analysis, surveys, focus groups, product/service/brand research and positioning, and brand image development.

When to use Focus Groups

Focus Groups are one of the methodologies used by Orient Pacific Century, especially in the areas of brand image monitoring or development, brand positioning, with products and services that are more complex or emotive in nature, and where qualitative data is more important than quantitative data. The strength of the focus group methodology is in depth. It can never replace professionally designed structured surveys, by questionnaire, phone, or interview for breadth. A moderator can probe when information provided is shallow or superficial, which is an inherent problem with structured surveys or mail questionnaires. The REAL reasons for consumer decision making can often be elicited that traditional surveys cannot hope to uncover. For brand-image generation, the data elicited by a professionally conducted focus group is generally far more useful than the less personal survey method.


Benefits of using Focus Groups in Asia

Focus Groups are a particularly useful method of data collection in Asia due to our strong oral tradition. Talking and discussing comes naturally.. ...whether it is in the coffee house or on the mobile phone. Asians are naturally social. As people who have visited Asia would know, due to many factors, the exchange of information by word of mouth is central to not only our cultures, but also the way business is done. Business means building up a relationship, and only when you have met and talked to people over an extended time do relationships move to the level of more open exchange of views that are central to good business. And the same applies for consumers. Asian people value their flexibility, and to put something down on paper often signals a commitment that can be referred to later! Life changes so fast that it is a commitment that many don't want to make.

There is an additional benefit of the focus group method just as important as the natural affinity for oral communication referred to above. Many countries like China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines are multi-cultural. Many consumers in Asia are at least bi-lingual and more often than not people can talk and converse in certain dialects, while to read or write in those dialects is far more difficult. Translating questionnaires often results in changes in the "meaning" of questions, resulting in misunderstanding and invalid results. The focus group setting can reduce a lot of these difficulties.


Focus Groups in Asia: Special Considerations

The more casual way of life in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia means that a commitment to turn up for a focus group is less likely than in the West. At the very mundane level, traffic jams in capital cities are the norm! Getting 6 to 10 people in one place at one time is always a challenge.. And when the clock and moderator's time is clicking away, it is far more obvious. Always invite more people to the group than you need. Two or three extra is far better than two or three less.

Compared to the US, Asian people are less open and have been conditioned to keep their opinions to themselves. This is so not to unintentionally insult others, or to cause others to "lose face". When you cause others to lose face, you expose yourself to lose similar. So the focus group moderator in Asia has to be very skilled at encouraging participation, making participants feel comfortable, and drawing out the quieter ones. Again this is partly a natural skill, partly trained. Nevertheless, the warm-up period is often longer in Asia. The moderator also needs to be aware of the different ethnic and religious backgrounds of participants, and having multi-language skills is a definite plus.

Always allow more time for recruitment, transcription and analysis than you would in other countries. The multitude of different accents and the use of different local slang makes transcription a specialized and longer job than in places where focus group participants come from similar backgrounds.

Breaking up your groups according to gender and age, as well as many other criteria should also be considered carefully, Much more so than in Western countries, it is considered very rude here for a younger person to even suggest they have a different opinion to either an older person or one who is more "senior" or "important". To a lesser, but still very significant extent, the same occurs with females in a group of males. Especially in places like Thailand and India, always keep your genders segregated. And in all your countries, break up groups by age and social class as much as possible.

Laughter is always the best medicine. Encouraging joking and laughter always brings out the best in these countries where "Sanook" or fun is integrated into our whole lifestyle.

Seating arrangements need not be such an issue if you have divided up your groups as above. But in cases where you cannot divide up according to gender or age, be aware of the advantages in carefully considered seating arrangements. The Western-style focus group invariably involves sitting in a circular arrangement without a table in front. The Asian style invariably provides desks or tables for participants. Part of this is due to culture. In many Asian countries a barrier in front is a welcome physical defence. Without this many consumers would feel uncomfortable and it would reduce their openness rather than increase it, which is the objective of the "non-table" approach. That certainly can not be applied generally in Asia.


Some (boring) fundamentals

We know how distracting mobile phones can be in normal life. In one group we ran in the early days two of the focus group participants were on their phones half the time! The mobile phone is very common in Asia where fixed lines are usually unreliable and public phones scarce. It is important to lay down the ground rules first.. And one of them is of course..., no mobile phones!

Beware the professional focus group participant! Focus groups are designed for in-depth qualitative analysis, and regardless of the number of groups or people surveyed can never boast "representativeness" as a structured survey can. This makes selection of participants even more important. Like in the West, most focus group providers in Asia have a large database of potential participants, so a focus group can be organized very quickly. This is a great service but it always pays to find out how participants are selected, and to be careful in specifying your selection criteria. I remember sitting at a table once with a group of people unaware of my job, when one boasted he supplemented his income once or twice a month by focus group attendance fees. When asked how he could be a consumer of so many items he stated that it does not matter.. I just talk crap! This is a world-wide occurrence of course, not just in our part of the world. But it pays to know as much as possible on how your agency is selecting participants.

We all know how important food is to Asian people! A contented tummy gets the mind working and the mouth in gear. It is why it is better to feed people before the group, and if the spread is a good one, as we all know in any culture, it is the best way to a person's heart. A hungry participant is never a good one... They will only be visualizing their next meal while trying to stay focussed! Key is to start the discussion as fast as possible after the feast to avoid the sleepy stage after eating (or the "first-speaker-after-lunch syndrome" that many presenters are all too painfully aware.)


Focus is the focus!

A key problem in market research is that the objectives of the research are easily lost as the detail of the project is established. We use a simple model that starts with the Business (or Management) Question, breaks this down into "Research Questions", and finally into "Investigative questions". At each level, the questions must answer the broader question above it, and evaluated in terms for their efficacy at achieving that. They must also be discussed and confirmed with the client. A perfectly run focus group is of very limited utility if it does not have a clear objective which relates to the Business Question. Following on from that, the actual questions asked must be clear and concise, while at the same time achieving depth and creative feedback.


Skills of the Moderator

The way focus groups are run in very different cultures like the more formal Japan to the more relaxed Indonesia vary considerably. Make sure your moderator is as much as possible similar to the group they are interviewing. Participants in different countries expect different treatment, and like anybody, open up to people they think really understand what is being said. This is perhaps the cardinal rule of moderation. It decreases defensiveness even before the moderator uses their well-honed facilitation skills. We always find it useful for the moderator to mix with the participants during the snack or meal time.

The skills of a good moderator are myriad, but we find the most critical skills are:

  • Probing: The ability to ask appropriate and relevant follow up questions that may not necessarily follow the script or brief. It presumes some creativity and innovation.
  • Empathy: These sets of skills popularized by the US Psychologist Rogers encourage the interviewees to feel that the moderator is "one of them". Similar ethnic, cultural, class and gender factors are important.
  • Silence: The skilled moderator is not embarrassed by silence, but thrives on it. While "top of the mind" opinions and feedback are key to focus groups, following the "word association" techniques of the early psychoanalysts, so also are what we call "the secondary level consciousness" where below-the-surface motivations, often very significant in consumer decision-making can be tapped. Skilfull use of silence facilitates this.
  • Group-think detection: A researcher called Janis identified a mechanism called "Groupthink", which reduced the performance of teams. It was identified as the main reason for the poor decision making in groups in such judgments as the way to bomb strategic military targets and in many jury decisions. In short, it refers to the tendency of groups to think alike over time and to be influenced by high-impact individuals in the team. The skilled moderator knows the warning signs and the techniques to reduce Group Think. Such techniques as asking each person in turn, directing questions to different sections of the room, and encouraging diversity of responses are some of these.
  • Process Expert: Paradoxically, the best moderator is one who is NOT an expert or experienced consumer in the product class or items, though of course an objective familiarity with the product is important. This is because the skilled moderator is an expert on group facilitation, and drawing out information from others, not on product knowledge. It also helps in maintaining objectivity.
  • Time management: The skilled focus group moderator knows when all the information available has been drawn out... ...and ensures that all themes and questions on the brief have been addressed. Wasted time in a focus group is as unprofessional as wrong notes in an orchestra.
  • Energy management: The focus group should be managed like an orchestra. High energy peaks must be built up to; lower energy time allowing for reflection must be built in. The introduction should establish the theme quickly, though it can either be subtle or dramatic. Changing the tenor and/or sub theme when participants seem bored, jaded, or tired is also a skill that can only be applied successfully though many years experience.


What does it cost?

In deciding on whether to use a specialist focus group provider, a general market research company, or to do it yourself, consider the advantages of control you may have in doing it yourself over the experience and specialist nature of the former services. Unfortunately, while focus group data when administered correctly, can provide significant information, it is also expensive. It is certainly not a cheap alternative to surveys. Costs may include development of the research and investigative questions and moderators brief, pre-testing, recruitment and screening of participants, moderation fees, accommodation in a special focus group facility, hotel, or other special room, transcription and translation of transcripts, video/tape costs, incentive fees and hospitality for participants. If you are doing it yourself, also include travel and accommodation costs. A major advantage of contracting out the work is that specialist agencies have economies of scale. Many, like us, have a live database of participant prospects who can be recruited very fast, moderators who have many years experience, local moderators who have strong empathy with participants, and many checks and balances to ensure validity of results.

We are probably not the only ones who feel the cost of focus groups have got right out of hand. Recently we were quoted prices regularly of around $1,000 US per participant for the delivery of one hour long consumer focus groups in Europe and the US. Of course that amount can be much more than the average quarterly salary of the average professional Asian consumer. ..and more than a years salary for those purchasing mass market consumer items such as household and food and beverage items.

The prices are often as they are because of the high professional salaries of moderators and researchers in the West, the higher incentives that need to be paid, and the higher margins. Some, but certainly not all international research groups say they have representation in Asia, but it often turns out to be an associate they have taken a major commission from! Additionally, Head Office requirements often mean that the focus groups in Asia are made less effective by having to conform to procedures that are more suitable for the originating country culture. Finally charges are usually based on international standard rates, even though some charges are reduced for the lower costs of running in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Indo-China, Vietnam and the Philippines. We are biased of course, but we feel the best results and lower costs are achieved by dealing direct with a local group. Research agencies which are truly international with offices throughout the world are a good alternative where standardization of results are required. It also makes administrative costs easier as you are billed once rather than by many different organizations, though our experience is that the cost savings are usually not passed on to the client!

We do not believe that custom-built focus group rooms, often with restaurant facilities attached are always required to deliver the most valid output, even though in some cases we do recommend them. Two way mirrors are useful when you need to study the non-verbals of consumers. And video can also help, either as an alternative to physical presence or an adjunct for later analysis. But these extras come at a cost. Review your research objectives and outputs and come to a decision on what facilities you really need.

There are also some disadvantages of custom-built facilities. Consumers coming to a custom-built location are taken out of their usual environment and more often than not this reduces comfort rather than increasing it. Focus group participants like the comfort of a custom built facility or a 5 star hotel facility, but always consider this against the other side of providing a comfortable, familiar, and culturally appropriate setting. In the past we have set up our groups and video cameras in such diverse places as hotels, shopping centers themselves, restaurants and near tourist facilities.

Costs: Salaries and living costs vary enormously throughout Asia, not only by country but also by job level. In Asia, Japanese, Hong Kong, and Singaporean salaries are generally more than in the West, especially in the middle to upper levels. Using a Western expatriate in those countries as a moderator increases costs again. (generally Western expat salaries and perks are much higher than those of locals at the same level). In other countries salaries range from significantly lower to very low. But that is not all! In all Asian countries, people at a lower level are paid significantly less than their compatriots in the West, while people at a higher level are paid considerably more. The range of salaries, bonuses, and extras make the difference between a working man and a rich man in Asia astronomical. For industrial focus groups you may find you will pay participants incentives far above those in the West, for consumer focus groups made up of the lower-middle to middle classes the incentives would be lower. Food, beverage and accommodation costs should be lower in Thailand, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Indo China and the Philippines while higher in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Rod Davies

Orient Pacific Century market research services | Branding in Asia by Paul Temporal | Register as a focus group participant for future focus groups

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