In the past six years, I’ve pretended to be a DIY enthusiast, claimed debilitating hay fever symptoms, faked car ownership, agreed to say I grew up in Manchester (despite being from Kent) and, for a painful two hours, fibbed that I was a recent divorcee.
I’ve done all this to take part in focus groups, or ‘brand research’, a bizarre hidden industry which doles out cash in exchange for your opinions.
It all began when I moved to London in 2009 and was struggling to get by on my pitiful wage interning at a women’s weekly magazine. Soon my friends’ salaries were soaring, while mine remained static as I toiled away as a glorified stationery orderer.
Riddled with FOMO and desperate to keep up with the Friday night cocktails, I wanted to look for ways to supplement my income. Waiting at Paddington station one rainy Saturday a man bearing a clipboard approached me. Normally I’d do anything to dodge this sort of chat, but he had me at his opening line. "Would you like £65 to take part in some research for a well-known yoghurt brand? You’re just the kind of person we’re looking for, it’ll only take one hour after work on Wednesday".
That Wednesday I joined seven women my age in a room just off Oxford Street, where the perky focus group leader explained that the massive wall-mounted mirror in front of us was two-way. We’d be watched and recorded as we debated the brand’s new advertising ideas. As there’s "no such thing as a wrong answer", we freely shared our feelings and misgivings while picking over the Pret sandwiches provided. After an hour we left and each received an envelope containing £65. It was the easiest cash I’d ever earned.
It was then that I recognised my status as a member of the advertiser’s dream 18-to-30-year-old, solvent-single-female segment of society. Brands want to get inside the heads of this key demographic. They need feedback on a product, service, concept, advert or idea before it launches to help them understand and manipulate consumer habits. As such, I knew my opinions are valuable.
Since that first yoghurt debate, I’ve taken part in groups for everything from luxury holiday companies to baked beans.
While most companies have a rule that no one can do more than one group every few months, no one checks. At my busiest I was doing two a week
Specialist external organisations set up the groups rather than the brand itself, and in theory they’re all constructed as perfect control groups, comprising random people off the street, full of fresh insights. You’re never told what you’ll be discussing exactly until you arrive, and you’re paid between £50 to £100 an hour for sitting down for a bit of chat with strangers.
Some research groups are more taxing, requiring you to actually put pen to paper, while others are downright weird. I’ve had ‘energy receptors’ attached to my head to monitor my brain’s reactions to a cigarette brand’s packaging (for which I was paid £60 for an hour); I’ve charted my reaction to a new comedy TV show using a ‘laugh-o-metre’ twiddle dial (£50, one hour. The show never made it to air), and I’ve traipsed around central London testing a highly confusing tourist attraction app (£75, 1.5 hours).
Occasionally a study will seek a niche group – such as first time house buyers, or people with a glandular problem for a deodorant study – and organisers often ask how I might feel about ‘agreeing’ to say I fulfil the criteria in order to participate. While most companies have a rule that no one can do more than one group every few months, no one checks. At my busiest I was doing two a week.
The non-committal nature of this easy money means I’ve carried on doing focus groups far longer than I thought I would. It’s far from glamorous, and the ’wink wink’ half-truths feel slightly shameful when I collect the little envelope of cash at the end of a session.
Needless to say, my ‘second career’ isn’t something I chat about down the pub. If I’m honest, I also don’t want friends badgering me for ways they can get involved, as there are only so many spaces available. Focus groups fill up faster than Glastonbury tickets sell out, because more and more women are cottoning on to them being an easy way to earn extra Whistles pocket money.
I usually try to be sparky and vocal, but many times I’ve been hungover to the point of mute. The chances of seeing anyone again is very slim. There’s also an unspoken rule that no one lets on if they know someone else, which extends to pretending not to recognise a pop star's wife at a cosmetics group. This isn’t a space to make new friends, and usually chat and bonhomie is confined to the study room.
Focus groups might basically reduce me to an algorithm giving a brand the insight it craves. But if you know an easier (legal) way to earn fast money through minimal effort, I’d like to hear it.