Researchers often refer to professional respondents as cheaters, as people that stand in between them, honest investigators and the truth. They use disciplines such as psychology, behavioral science, sociology, anthropology etc. to get to the truth and the precious insights that lie beneath it. So how dare an impostor disrupt their sincere efforts and hard work! This week, The Sound spoke to Nandita (her name has been changed to protect her identity), a ‘professional respondent’ who candidly speaks about research industry realities in Mumbai, India and puts forward her point of view on her experience as a respondent.
Tell us about yourself and how you got into attending groups for market research?
About ten years ago a neighbor asked me to accompany her to an event. She explained that I would get paid to give my opinion and told me that I had to replace her sister who was not available on that day. I did not pay too much attention to the explanation but decided to go because I had nothing else to do that day. When I reached the venue there were many women of my age and the organizer asked me to introduce myself by my friend’s sister’s name. I had taken her place and therefore had to pretend to be her. I followed the instructions and tried to understand how to behave by looking at the other people in the room. The women were talking about how they prepared breakfast for their children and in few minutes I joined the conversation because I found the topic interesting. I later found out that the event was a focus group discussion for (redacted).
Once home, I immediately told my family about the experience: how much I had learned on the topic, the interesting people I had met and how much money I had earned by just talking. I felt so good about myself and the experience that I immediately asked my neighbor if my family could also participate. I knew my husband would do it only for the money but I really wanted my two daughters to attend because I straight away felt that focus groups would help them become more social, open and assertive. Nowadays, these are essential skills required to survive and also become successful in the highly competitive environment we live in. The same week I attended another group and my husband went for his first one after couple of days. It took some time before my daughters could participate because they were young, but they were sent as soon as the first opportunity cropped up.
How has your experience as a respondent changed from when you started?
I still feel the same about being a respondent. I feel empowered by each experience and I have become a different person after attending so many groups and participating in so many studies. I am a much stronger and better person and I’ve made many friends. I don’t feel shy about voicing my opinion in public. I’ve learned so much more about brands, products and advertising and I also earn my own money.
My daughters have also changed. They are not those introvert quiet girls they were before, especially the older one who studied in convent school. They are now bold girls who are ready to face the world – all this because of participating in focus groups and interviews for market research projects.
I really look forward to attending groups but unfortunately most research agencies have blacklisted me. I have become what they call ‘professional respondent’ or a ‘repeat’, and therefore I do not get called as often as I used to. Now I get invited once or twice a month while a couple of years ago I used to attend five to six groups or interviews a week. Back then I would make around 15,000 Indian Rupee (INR) (approx. $222.00 USD) a month while now I earn only 2,000 to 3,000 INR. My daughters get called quite often because they are young and smart. They are tech savvy and are very good participants for online studies. I help them at times to answer questions and push them to give better answers, just like you do when you are studying for exams.
What are the challenges you face in being a professional respondent?
Companies don’t pay that well, especially us women. My husband always gets more than me, although he is not very fluent in English. At times I get paid 200 INR for 2 hours and that does not even cover my transport costs. I know that a good chunk of the incentive amount goes to recruiters and research agencies but there should be a way for companies to ensure that respondents don’t get just the leftovers of their research budgets. Occasionally clients directly give incentives to respondents but later on recruiters ask for their share from us. They tell us that they will not call us for other projects if we don’t give them part of the incentive. They also prepare us for post interview calls where the client is trying to find out how much we were given. We have to lie because if we don’t, we will not be called again. This is the experience I have had with research companies such as… (redacted), etc.
Lying is also a big part of this profession. We lie a lot. We lie about age, family situation, SEC (Socio Economic Classification), the houses we live in, products we use and surname. We have to lie because the client requirements are often unrealistic and because people don’t turn up at the last minute. My family and I live near many research offices and viewing facilities and therefore it is easy for us to reach a group fast. We have also learned to study people around us to impersonate what the client wants. If we know that the study is about certain beauty products, we either buy them or ask friends who own them. We have borrowed blood pressure machines, toothpaste, mobile phones, cars, etc. to be part of research studies but we are genuine about the information we give during groups. My younger daughter finds lying challenging. She feels that by distorting the truth we are cheating the people who pay us.
I personally don’t see any harm in pretending to be someone from a lower or higher SEC because I know many people from similar backgrounds and I know how they think. Age is just a number and everything else can be imagined. I also feel that I have now mastered how to talk about products and ideas in a way that clients and moderators appreciate. Initially this was difficult for me because of my own insecurities but now I am confident about my ideas, opinions and language. Clients want to listen to confident people who know a lot about their brands. Many new respondents are not called back because they are shy and don’t know much about topics and brands. The more talkative respondents always get invited to more sessions. The groups are lively and finish on time if people know what to answer and when. I have heard from recruiters that clients are happy when groups are entertaining. I am sure it feels like watching TV for them.
Overall you seem happy about your experience as a respondent. What message would you like to send to people that make use of your opinion?
Please give us respondents more respect. We really enjoy giving our opinion to help you improve your brands and products but we also are human beings with real lives.
- Don’t be rude to us if you have seen us before. We come because we genuinely want to help you understand things you care about better.
- Don’t keep us for 3 hours in a room when the agreed time was 2. We do have lives.
- A lot of people who have jobs cannot take time off to attend interviews or groups during weekdays. Don’t make group schedules around office hours. People will back out at the last minute.
- Pay us a decent amount that will allow us to travel on faster public transport and treat us to some of the products and services you offer.
- Don’t have too many rules on the frequency of attendance and let us be part of more projects. This would help us plan our lives better with respect to time, career and finances.
- Make group activities more fun. It is easier to think and respond if there are visual stimuli and games used in the discussions.