A forgotten man: rural respondents

I have attended hundreds of focus groups. These are moderated small group discussions, typically with anywhere from 4 to 12 participants. The discussions take place in a tricked-out conference room, decked with recording equipment and a one-way mirror. Researchers and clients sit behind this one-way mirror in a cushy, multi-tiered lounge. The lounge has comfortable chairs, a refrigerator with beer and wine, and an insane number of M&M’s. Experienced researchers have learned to sit as far away from the M&M’s as possible.

Focus groups are used for many purposes. Clients use them to test out new product ideas or new advertising under development. We recommend them to clients if their objectives do not seem quite ready for survey research. We also like to do focus groups after a survey research project is complete, to put some personality on our data and to have an opportunity to pursue unanswered questions.

I would estimate that at least half of all focus groups being conducted are being held in just three cities: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Most of the other half are held in other major cities or in travel destinations like Las Vegas or Orlando. These city choices can have little to do with the project objectives – focus groups tend to be held near where the client’s offices are or in cities that are easy to fly to. Clients often cities simply because they want to go there.

The result is that early-stage product and advertising ideas are almost always evaluated by urban participants or by suburban participants who live near a large city. Smaller city, small town, and rural consumers aren’t an afterthought in focus group research. They aren’t thought about at all.

I’ve always been conscious of this, perhaps because I grew up in a rural town and have never lived in a major metropolitan area. The people I grew up with an knew best were not being asked to provide their opinions.

This isn’t just an issue in qualitative research, it happens with surveys and polls as well. Rural and small-town America is almost always underrepresented in market research projects.

This wasn’t a large issue for quantitative market research early on, as RDD telephone samples could effectively include rural respondents. Many years ago, I started adding questions into questionnaires that would allow me to look at the differences between urban, suburban, and rural respondents. I would often find differences, but pointing them out met with little excitement with clients who often seemed uninterested in targeting their products or marketing to a small-town audience.

Online samples do not include rural respondents as effectively as RDD telephone samples. The rural respondents that are in online sampling data bases are not necessarily representative of rural people. Weighting them upward does not magically make them representative.

In 30 years, I have not had a single client ask me to correct a sample to ensure that rural respondents are properly represented. The result is that most products and services are designed for suburbia and don’t take the specific needs of small-town folks into account.

All biases only matter if they affect what we are measuring. If rural respondents and suburban respondents feel the same way about something, this issue doesn’t matter. However, it can matter. It can matter for product research, it certainly matters to the educational market research we have conducted, and it is likely a hidden cause of some of the problems that have occurred with election polling.

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