Exploratory Group Interview in Consumer Research: a Case Example

Thomas D. Dupont, Oxtoby-Smith Inc.
ABSTRACT - Several applications of focus group interviewing are described, together with the unique advantages of this technique. The paper focuses on the use of exploratory group interviewing as a preliminary to a larger, quantified study. A case example of research conducted for Volvo of America Corporation is presented as an illustration of the functions of exploratory group interviewing.
[ to cite ]:
Thomas D. Dupont (1976) ,"Exploratory Group Interview in Consumer Research: a Case Example", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 431-433.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 431-433


Thomas D. Dupont, Oxtoby-Smith Inc.

[The author expresses his appreciation to Lars Samuelson, Vice President -- Marketing, Volvo of America Corporation, for permission to publish this paper, and for supporting the research described herein.]

[Thomas D. Dupont is Vice President, Oxtoby-Smith Inc., New York, N. Y.]


Several applications of focus group interviewing are described, together with the unique advantages of this technique. The paper focuses on the use of exploratory group interviewing as a preliminary to a larger, quantified study. A case example of research conducted for Volvo of America Corporation is presented as an illustration of the functions of exploratory group interviewing.


"Look, my budget's tight and we don't have much time. Let's just do a couple of groups."

"We need to talk with these people to find out what they think. We've got to really dig in below surface opinions. So let's round some up and do some groups."

"I understand the client's problem, but I don't even know who we should survey or what questions we should ask. Let's recommend that we start with a couple of groups and design the quantification after we have a better idea of what the relevant issues are."

Sound familiar?

I'm not saying that those are the only reasons why market researchers use focus group interviews, but my guess is that those three scenarios account for a substantial majority of them.

Is there anything wrong with this?

Certainly not. Those three situations are made to order for group interviews. In fact, there are a variety of very good reasons why one would wish to conduct group interviews:

1. Group interviews can be conducted very quickly, and relatively inexpensively.

2. They sometimes provide the only mechanism by which a senior researcher can talk face-to-face with consumers. Individual depth interviews, the alternative, are simply too expensive in most circumstances.

3. Group interviews provide the opportunity for the non-research client -- the Product Manager, Vice President - Marketing, Sales Manager -- to listen to what consumers are saying about his product and the way he sells it. What he hears is sometimes painful, but almost always enlightening.

4. Group interviews are flexible. The moderator is not tied to a fixed sequence of questions, but can skip topics which seem to be unproductive and zero-in on areas which are productive. Sometimes, the ability of a good moderator to exploit such "targets of opportunity" can result in purely serendiptious findings of great importance to the client. Such results emerge less frequently from field interviews.

5. Participants in the group can interact and stimulate one another. While a group interview is in no sense similar to a group therapy session, and the moderator is in no sense a therapist, the plain fact is that the group situation -- provided it is a secure and comfortable one -- often encourages respondents to disclose attitudes and behaviors which they might not admit in an individual interview situation.

Just as there are a number of good reasons for conducting group interviews, there are a number of problems which can be addressed in group interviews. By way of example, within the past year, Oxtoby-Smith has used group interviews:

1. To explore consumer reaction to new product concepts;

2. To explore consumer response to both advertising concepts and finished ads;

3. To generate ideas for new products;

4. To explore consumer response to package designs and labeling; and

5. To explore differences in perception between a live demonstration of a product and a filmed presentation.

However, the most important function of group interviewing at Oxtoby-Smith is as a device to guide the design and conduct of a subsequent large-scale quantitative survey. In this context, group interviews are used:

1. To identify and understand consumer language as it relates to the product category in question. What terms do they use? What do they mean?

2. To identify the range of consumer concerns. How much variability is there among consumers in how they view the product and in the considerations which lead them to accept or reject the product?

3. To identify the complexity of consumer concerns. Are there a few simple attitudes which govern consumer reaction toward the product, or is the structure complex, involving many contingencies?

4. To identify specific methodological or logistical problems which are likely to affect either the cost of the subsequent research, or our ability to generate meaningful, actionable findings at all.

I'd like to describe a project we recently completed which illustrates these four functions of exploratory group sessions.


Background Of The Case

For the past six years, Oxtoby-Smith has been conducting consumer research for Volvo of America Corporation. During that period, we have witnessed a substantial change in the marketplace as it affects Volvo:

1. Consumers seem increasingly interested in cars like Volvo -- functional, durable, compact and safe.

2. Until very recently, Volvo and a few other imports had this segment to themselves; prior to Ford's introduction of the Granada there was little direct domestic competition in this segment.

3. Most importantly, because of successive devaluations of the dollar and other economic factors, the price of the least expensive Volvo has risen from about $3,300 in 1972 to about $5,500 in 1975.

It became increasingly apparent to Volvo marketing management, and to Volvo's advertising agency, that whereas Volvo used to compete primarily with a small group of imports (mainly Audi), in the future Volvo, because of its price level, would be increasingly competing with domestic luxury cars (Buick Electra, Chrysler Cordoba, Ford Elite, and even Cadillac and Lincoln Continental).

In consequence of these changes, we decided to undertake a study to explore the differences between Volvo buyers and Volvo considerers (people who thought about buying a Volvo, but in the end bought some other car). We wanted to learn the reasons for buying a Volvo, and the resistances to buying a Volvo.

The Study Design

Our study design, as you might guess, involved inquiry among two respondent populations -- people who had recently bought Volvos, and people who had recently considered buying Volvos, but instead bought competitive makes.

Finding buyers is easy -- Volvo has lists. Finding considerers is not so easy, especially since a previous attempt at getting Volvo dealers to record the names and addresses of all prospects was a dismal failure.

Accordingly, we decided to buy lists of buyers of new car models who we felt would be most likely to have considered Volvo. This selection of models was based upon the premise that the cars Volvo buyers reject are the same cars which Volvo considerers buy. Since we knew from previous research what other cars Volvo buyers consider, we had our list of models. The design called for two phases of research:

1. An exploratory stage, involving four group interviews -- two with Volvo buyers and two with Volvo considerers (prior research had taught us that buyers and considerers don't mix well; buyers dominate the sessions by proselytizing about Volvo).

2. A quantification phase involving telephone interviews with 400 first-time Volvo buyers and 200 Volvo considerers.

In the remainder of this paper, we'd like to describe what we learned in the exploratory group sessions, and how what we learned affected the design and conduct of the quantification study.

What We Learned From The Sessions Themselves

We had conducted a great deal of research for Volvo in the past and had generated a number of hypotheses about what makes a considerer become a Volvo buyer. In spite of this extensive background in the product area, however, we still learned important things in the groups which permitted us to conduct a quantification study which was both more insightful and less expensive than we would otherwise have conducted.

Let me give you a few examples.

Volvo considerers differ sharply in the way in which they consider Volvo. One of the most important things we learned -- which confirmed what we suspected -- was that there are a number of different ways in which considerers considered Volvo. Some considered Volvo very seriously, and narrowed the choice of cars to Volvo and one other make. Others considered Volvo seriously, but it was not among the cars which survived until the final decision. (In selecting respondents for the groups, we asked whether they seriously considered a Volvo, and only serious considerers were recruited. Prior experience had taught us that a question like, "Did you consider buying a ________" is a very weak question. Many consumers will say they considered buying a product even if that consideration was very fleeting and casual.) Even within the "serious considerers," the ways of considering Volvo varied enormously:

1. Some test drove the car and haggled over price with the dealer.

2. Others evaluated the car carefully, but did not get to the point of negotiations with the dealer.

3. Some considered the car seriously without ever visiting a showroom, relying instead on word-of-mouth and ratings of the car in magazines like "Consumers Report," "Motor Trend," and the like.

Accordingly, we felt it crucial in our quantification study to include questions which would enable us to segment considerers according to the degree to which they seriously considered Volvo and the methods they used to arrive at their purchase choice. To that end, we designed a question to determine which specific actions were taken in considering Volvo, such as talking with Volvo owners, reading evaluative articles in magazines, paying more attention to Volvo advertising, visiting a Volvo showroom, negotiating over price, and others.

Volvo buyers and considerers are highly segmented. Since Volvo's share of the U.S. auto market is less than 1%, it would be reasonable to expect that Volvo buyers, and to a lesser extent, Volvo considerers, are relatively homogeneous in terms of demography, attitude, and preference. However, while it is true that these groups are more homogeneous than U.S. car buyers at large, it is nevertheless the case that segmentation is very real within Volvo's market.

1. Volvo buyers range from those who bought Volvo as a less expensive alternative to Mercedes to middle-income Americans who must strain to afford the oar. They range from first-time import buyers to those who would never consider a domestic car.

2. Volvo considerers vary even more widely than do Volvo buyers, from "typical domestic buyers" interested in styling, power, status, and a familiar name to "typical import buyers" interested in economy, functionalism, durability, and "foreign craftsmanship."

These group interviews strongly suggested that the primary variable differentiating the Volvo buyer from the Volvo considerer was the set of concerns that individual brought with him to the car-buying process. Further, it was readily apparent from the groups that these concerns varied widely, implying that it would be necessary in the quantification to measure the importance to the consumer of a number of characteristics of a car, such as safety, exterior styling, anticipated cost of service, and so forth. In consequence, we prepared a list of 26 automobile attributes -- some drawn from prior research and some new ones based upon the group session findings to present to consumers in the quantification. It was our hope (subsequently realized) that importance ratings of these items would prove to be extremely powerful in discriminating between Volvo buyers and Volvo con-siderers.

However, the desirability of this approach left us with a methodological dilemma. It was important that we not only learn the importance of these 26 factors to Volvo buyers and considerers, but also that we learn, among considerers, how Volvo stacked up, on the factors they considered important, against the car actually bought.

The logical alternative, after having the respondent rate all 26 factors for importance was to have him rank the five factors which played the largest role in the automobile selection decision, and then rate Volvo versus the competitive car on those top five factors. Clearly, it would be expecting too much to have the respondent perform this task in a telephone interview. It was critical, we felt, that the respondent have the 26 factors in front of him while he was going through the rating process. Thus, we were left with two alternative methodologies -- personal interviews or mail. As we will see, the screening experience in recruiting respondents for the sessions strongly influenced our choice between these two alternatives.

What We Learned From The Recruiting Process

As was mentioned earlier, prospective participants for the group sessions were recruited from lists of recent buyers of cars felt to be competitive with Volvo. In order to be invited to a session, the respondent had to indicate that he seriously considered buying a Volvo.

As it happens, the results of the screening for serious considerers proved very instructive; we had to contact about 1,000 recent new car buyers to recruit approximately 20 focus group respondents. While we knew we could expect a higher cooperation rate in the quantification, since respondents would not have to leave their homes, the fact remained that the incidence of Volvo considerers, even among buyers of selected models, was very small. Accordingly, a quantification study conducted via telephone interviewing, to say nothing of personal interviewing, would substantially exceed the budget which Volvo had set aside for this project.

In that circumstance, we decided to conduct the study as a mail survey -- a decision which permitted us to collect the rating information which we could not collect over the telephone, while at the same time saving Volvo a considerable sum of money (we estimate about $10,000). The mail survey went smoothly, the quantification verified some of the hypotheses we had generated in the group sessions (and refuted others), and the results of the study have since played an important role in the development of Volvo advertising and marketing strategies for 1976.


In summary, this example illustrates quite well the value of conducting a few exploratory group interviews prior to a larger, quantified study. Such an exploration will not always pay for itself in a more efficient final research design, as this one more than did, but it will nearly always lead to a subsequent survey richer in content, more adroit in interpretation, and more actionable to marketing management. That is why Oxtoby-Smith -- as well as many of our competitors --makes a standard practice of conducting some exploratory group interviews prior to any extensive data collection effort, even when the product area is one with which we are highly familiar.