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Moderators try to discern consumers' real motivations and why they say and do certain things. They typically record the sessions, and marketing managers often remain behind two-way mirrors in the next room. Focus-group research is a useful exploratory step, but researchers must avoid generalizing from focus-group participants to the whole market, because the sample size is too small and the sample is not drawn randomly.
In fact, an increasing number of marketers are relying on other means of collecting information that they believe are less artificial. "Focus groups confirm what you already know," says Eva Steensig, a sociologist at DDB Denmark. DDB, part of the Omnicom Group, introduced a new service called SignBank, which uses the Internet and the advertising agency's global office network to collect thousands of snippets of information about cultural change, identify trends within the data, and advise clients about what it means to them. Consumers are not experts on their own consumption patterns, says Steensig, and this makes them easily led by focus group moderators. DDB and some other advertisers feel it is better to “read the signs” of consumption than ask consumers to self-consciously comment on their own patterns. For instance, DDB’s sign spotters in several markets noticed that dinner-party guests were bringing their hosts flowers instead of chocolate, in a nod to current concerns over obesity and health. Anthon Berg, a Danish chocolate company and DDB client, plans to use that information to more closely associate its chocolate with different social occasions.