Hocus Focus

Focus Groups Move Out of the Office

When visitors check out the new Interscope Records site (interscope-records.com), which launched Monday, their eyes will likely jump immediately to the item on the right-hand side of the page: "Blackstreet Focus Group." For a 10-day period, fans can listen to five 30-second clips of unreleased songs from a new album due out in the spring by platinum r&b artists Blackstreet—and then offer their opinions and commentary. They can even select the song they think should be the single.

"When I went to a press party for the new Blackstreet album, I noticed [producer] Teddy Riley was doing listening sessions, calling them focus groups," says Steve Rimland, Interscope's head of new media. "[I said] why don't we put them up on the Net and get feedback from the whole Web community? He loved it."

Rimland hopes Interscope's model can be put to use for the label's entire roster of artists, which includes Smashmouth, Primus, the Wallflowers, and Dr. Dre. While this may seem overly ambitious, he's certainly not alone in his lofty goals for information-collecting over the Web. As the number of people with Internet access continues to grow, companies are increasingly turning to the Web to gather opinions on and test the waters for whatever they're trafficking in: products, people, ideas.

"There are no geographical barriers, no facility or travel costs, and recruiting [participants] is less expensive," says Susan Roth, who manages online qualitative research at Greenfield Online, a Westport, Connecticut, firm that conducts focus groups on the Web (greenfieldcentral.com). "There's a faster turnaround because we can recruit faster. And we can also recruit people who are not likely to go to a focus group but don't mind doing it online."

But the use of the Web for focus groups and more in-depth opinion-gathering raises some complex issues that get at the heart of life online—and have implications that extend far beyond marketing. "There's a culture that tends to exist [online], an anonymous voyeurism, and that becomes the basis of most of our interactions," says Barry Joseph, supervising producer at Web Lab (weblab.org), a nonprofit "online laboratory" that is attempting to create a workable
model for Web-based forums. "As a result, most of the online forums tend to have structures that work against people having meaningful dialogues."

Last summer, Web Lab tested a structured forum to offer feedback to the PBS program P.O.V. In a follow-up report, titled "The Dilemma of the Invisible Man," Joseph wrote, "The less that is known about us, the less the apprehension when developing a relationship, and the more a sense of control over the situation. But the most likely way to get me to open up is to first share more of yourself. We're stuck in a catch-22."

This problem is nothing new to BBS-ers, who have always seen their share of jokers trying to destroy the quality of the debate. But BBSs have an advantage in that they are long-term communities rather than groups of people who have come together for a more fleeting purpose. The PBS project, called P.O.V. Salon, consisted of small groups of viewers who watched the weekly hour-long documentary and discussed the shows online over the course of a few months. The feedback was then submitted to P.O.V.

Joseph believes there are several inherent problems with impersonal Web-based dialogues: because there's generally no limit to how many participants can be involved, "the numbers can get enormously large and no one can keep track of who the people are and their significance." And because there's no penalty for joining a discussion in progress or leaving before it's over, "everyone has a unique experience. It doesn't create a group dynamic." Finally, anonymity "allows people to not take any responsibility for their actions online," Joseph says. "There's no mechanism for anybody to be held accountable online."

To get around these obstacles, Web Lab limited the number of participants in both the P.O.V. Salon and its current experiment in online dialogue, Reality Check
(realitycheck.com), a forum for discussing and contextualizing the Monica Lewinsky scandal. From the start Web Lab tried to enlist only those participants who were prepared to commit for the whole series of discussions. As with real-world conferences, though, attendance is impossible to enforce, short of bolting the doors (a tactic employed at Franklin Furnace before the arts organization traded their loft for digital theater space).

The key to eliciting usable information, Joseph says, is to "create a space that people will take ownership of." In other words, there has to be an effective group dynamic operating within an environment that people feel they can shape to their own needs. "One thing a lot of companies have a hard time doing is giving the users of their site control over what they're doing." Still, letting the users take the reins can be a tough task for a Web site that has its own agenda—whether its aim is editorial or advertorial. Several editorial sites, including the online magazines Feed(feedmag.com) and Salon(salonmag.com) have managed to do this quite effectively, creating and actively nurturing spaces for running dialogue from readers and contributors. Web producers of all stripes could take a cue from these sites: if the Web is
to be anything more than a medium for
e-commerce, Joseph says, "There has to be substantive dialogue."

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