I will frequently use the term "studies" interchangeably with "focus groups" throughout this writing.
Focus groups are fun, and I have been able to get about one a month consistently for the last two years now. For the one to two hours or so they last in length on average, the studies typically pay $75-150 and often have free lunch, interesting people to meet, and sometimes product handouts at the end. I have been to a few studies that paid as much as $200+ for 60-90 minutes, generally the more specific of a demographic they are looking for, the more the focus group will pay to their participants. What I like about focus groups is the the way they nicely lend to a work from home or part time schedule. If you have a 9-5 job, these will be harder to partake in, but not impossible, many are deliberately scheduled in the evening for just this reason.
So what is a focus group? Well basically, various companies that make or sell, whatever, use marketing companies to get "regular people" and their opinions on stuff in a meeting. Typically you are in a group setting, although sometimes alone, and a truly unbiased moderator asks you questions to get your opinions on behalf of the hiring company (you may or may not get to know who the client is).
Being able to give opinions is important to the point that you may even be pre-screened that you are a person that can give your opinion freely and without hesitation, you may be asked a pre-interview question that has nothing to do with the focus group, for example "if you could invite anyone to dinner, who would you choose?". That's a common one I have received. There is no wrong answer per se, you are just being screened for your ability to be an opinionated and articulate person.
How I got to participate in studies
Ultimately, getting focus groups scheduled comes down to your city you live in, and your demographic; and the research companies being aware that you exist. The good news is, they are looking for all kinds of people, in most major and even small cities.
Simply Google search "Focus group *your city here*" and there should be a decent selection of marketing firms putting on studies in any major city.
The first time I google searched the above, I found about six marketing research firms close by, and two more out of state if I really wanted to go all out into it. I simply singed up for all of them. A lot of the research companies will ask you questions about yourself in order to create a basic profile on you for their records and what groups they can then put you in, e.g. where you shop, how much money you have, etc. If a question truly bothers you, no one will force you to answer. But by having these questions pre-answered, you are more likely to be contacted by the focus group companies if and when there is an opportunity for you.
Crystal L Kendrick, President of The Voice of Your Customer echos this, informing me: "Some participants decide not to answer all of the demographic questions in recruiting questionnaire or they answer the questions incorrectly. For these reasons, persons are eliminated from the recruiting process. Participants are often selected based on specific demographic criteria, and we are not always looking for the most educated or wealthiest persons to join our sessions."
FocusGroup.com is a good national website to start with, as they are in most states, and a major player in the space. Nick Calloway of WFHGuide.com, a blog on home based income, tells me about MediaBarnResearch.com whom occasionally offer remote groups, meaning that you could participate in a study from home for a company across the country.
Rather than wait around to get contacted to participate in paid-studies, which does happen after signing up, I was proactive about the work as well, and have secured the majority of my paid slots through doing so. To proactively look for study groups, I simply have been going to the market research sites I signed up for found in my local Google search I mentioned, and browsing what studies they have offered to see if I qualify.
You could make a reminder to yourself to do this browsing for studies weekly, once a month, whatever. Use an app like "follow up then" or your phone's native reminder app and something like "check to see if there any upcoming focus groups".
Lastly, I made an IFTTT formula (below), to scrape my local Craigslist and e-mail me any time a focus group company had placed an ad on Craigslist for needing participants which they sometimes rely. I did this to pick up even more focus group income on top of signing up to the market research firms directly, and did so for a few reasons: Because market research companies travel the country and may not already have a presence in my community, and also, because even though I may be signed up for an existing research company, I may not known to go to their website to see their new studies offered.
The "Recipe", to borrow their proprietary term, that you will use on IFTTT in this case will be to use Craigslist and e-mail channels respectively, and for you to set up to be e-mailed when the word(s) "paid research", or "focus group", or "research study" come up. Here is a video I made before on how to use IFTTT in general:
As I said, focus groups are strictly side income, and where you have to factor in that you may need to spend an hour per focus group beforehand for things like finding the study, qualifying for it over the phone or in person, and then traveling to the location if it can't be done online (some do offer validated parking at least). If driving into the city all the time isn't for you, there are a few online equivalents, like UserTesting.com for example where you can evaluate websites from your home.
Lastly, there have been times when I have been arbitrarily cut from a study, the study was canceled, etc. although I would add, that has not been typical. One got canceled by snow once, and they paid us anyway!
Your payment upon completion of studies will often come in the form of a pre-paid gift card rather than cash, and sometimes checks. Understand at least, that the gift cards are usually a glorified debit card, and therefore available to use almost anywhere.
Kendrick explains to me, put in my words, that you can't just sit there in the group like a lump on log, she states: "it is imperative that participants add value to the focus group sessions. This means that the participants arrive on time, bring the required forms and documentation, answer the questions in a meaningful way and not be disruptive to other participants. Participants who add value to sessions will likely be invited to join other sessions. Those who do not add value will likely be added to a Do Not Call list."
I would add that this is pretty easy to accomplish. Answer when called on, and don't be a total jerk and it would be rather hard to mess it up.
Why do them
I like participating in focus groups other than just the side income, because they are inherently novel. You never know who you will meet at them, what other stories you will hear, or what you will learn about; all while getting paid to say what you feel, with no wrong answer. It's pretty fascinating to see the range of opinions people have on something and why, and for that, you learn a lot about people's behavior. You also learn a lot about influence, and how an entire group can quickly be swayed when an outspoken person has a strong opinion (the moderators are trained to try and squelch this.)
There have been a few circumstances in focus group studies where I got to sample (food) products that hadn't been released to the general public yet (candies, sodas, chips, juices) , and other circumstances where I learned about products that hadn't been created yet, like TV shows, websites, etc. (I won't give specific examples beyond generic explanations to honor the non-disclosure agreements that were involved with those, but suffice it to say it felt cool getting to know ahead of everyone else!)
Sometimes the studies have flexible meeting dates too, as in, "the upcoming study to taste test soda X will be taking place at three different time slots this week", and then in that case you get to choose.
Lastly, your thoughts are ultimately going to shape how a product ends up from your influence, even if just a tiny amount, and that's kind of cool.
Takeaway: Focus groups are an easy and often fun way to make some nice spare money if you have a flexible schedule, and you can start by Google searching "Focus Groups My City Here"
I recommend Bluehost as a website hosting provider for their affordability, ease of use, and customer service.
About the writer:Brad Hines is the president of YumDomains.com, and the founder of HungryKids.org. He is a digital marketing and social media strategist. A writer as well, he typically writes about Internet, e-commerce, marketing, personal finance and lifestyle. He has bylines at Entrepreneur, Huffington Post, Techopedia, Elephant Journal, Learnvest and more. Follow @BradHines