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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Focus Point Global and the Paid Opinion Racket

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Mar 13, 2013

While there may be no such thing as free money, in some instances if your patience exceeds that of a saint, and if you like to talk, there can be financial rewards.

I’m talking about Focus Pointe Global, an international organization devoted to qualitative market research. If you haven’t heard of Focus Pointe Global (FPG), this is how the system works: You sign up to receive screener questionnaires which ultimately determine whether or not a panel of experts finds you qualified to join a round table of paid people to give their opinions about social issues, an ad campaign, or new products like hair gel or breakfast cereals. Other FPG panels might deal with health and diet issues, non-prescription drugs, or exercise. FPG pays focus group participants for their time through funds provided by the companies pushing their products and services, while these same companies give FPG specific guidelines regarding the selection of focus group panelists.

Subscribers to FPG are sent several online screeners a week. The first part is a screener which determines your eligibility (age, income, where you work, and availability); next comes the verification process, meaning that if you pass Go, you get to speak with a FPG rep who confirms your eligibility by asking you additional questions. Next there is the confirmation process, where a select group of behind-the-scenes people will review you as a potential focus group panel member. If you pass this test, you finally get to join the focus group.

Focus groups, depending on their length, can pay participants anywhere from 50 to 150 dollars in cold cash, usually distributed at the end of the session in crisp new bills in an envelope with your name on it. It’s a great way to make money, especially if you are not afraid to talk and give your opinion about social issues, services or products.

Over the years, I’ve participated in a number of focus groups in Center City. Traditionally, the eligibility section has always been brief, but lately that has changed. Participation in a focus group used to be relatively easy with a few quirks along the way. Since one cannot expect to be selected for every group, a number of rejections are to be expected. On the average, it used to be considered good luck to be selected for a group at least once a year. Today’s ailing economy, as well as the changing demands of clients who pay FPG to arrange focus groups, means that you can consider yourself "lucky" if you get picked for a FPG group once every three years.

My last FPG group was almost two years ago. Since that time I have probably answered 150 to 200 online screeners to determine my eligibility. In all cases I was rejected. For starters, the eligibility section asks if you work (or have ever worked) in a number of jobs or professions, and very often one of the professions listed is journalism, as in TV, radio, magazines or newspaper work. To admit the truth and check a "Yes" on this box is usually an instant disqualifier, as corporate head honchos who pay FPG don’t want journalists or writers in focus groups. In eight out of every ten eligibility screeners that come my way, the newspaper-magazine-TV question is paramount. When I check "Yes" I am disqualified immediately.

I’ve gotten used to the rejections at this stage of the game, since a similar thing happens every time I receive a jury duty notice. The jury duty screening process always includes a pass or fail test by attorneys; when an attorney reads that you’re a journalist, forget it, you are rejected out of hand.

If lawyers and focus groups don’t want journalists on their panels or juries, why don’t they just come out and say so?

At one point things got so bad with the FGP screeners that I started to keep score of all the rejections I was piling up. Then I decided to conduct an experiment. I started to lie when filling out the eligibility screener, but even then I was rejected. I tried all sorts of lies and even stated that I was a pharmacist just to see if I would be accepted (I was not).

FPG sometimes gets slick and offers very long eligibility screeners that may take ten to fifteen minutes to answer. Sometimes the questions are real focus group survey questions, meaning that the company in question is getting their information for free (in the name of eligibility) with the added benefit of rejecting you in the end. If I could tabulate the time I’ve spent answering screeners in the last 24 months it would register somewhere near the four or five hour mark. All done for free, of course.

The focus group game has now become comparable to gambling.

I had a taste of victory recently when a FPG verifier called to confirm my answers to a screener, and then said I was to be included in a group. This led to dreams of that envelope filled with crisp cash, but five minutes later someone from FPG called and canceled my participation. No reason was given.

More recently I was selected for a health issues panel, passed both the verification and the confirmation process, and slated to show up at 8 AM the next morning for a 7-hour group. After rearranging my schedule so that I could attend, some four hours after being told I was "in" I received a call which said that the client has changed the criteria for the group, and that my participation wouldn’t be needed. "Good luck next time," the recorded message and email stated.

"Luck" like this is enough to make one paranoid. I called FPG to ask if I was on a blacklist. "I’ve done two hundred screeners during the last two years and was rejected for every single one of them," I said. "Statistically, this looks odd."

I was assured there was no blacklist, that my FPG standing was fine, and that my participation in future FPG focus groups was valued. But something seems rotten in Denmark. Could it be true that the information submitted on the "screener" surveys is the actual information that companies want, and that FPG turns around and sells those answers?