Lessons from the World’s Most Northerly Focus Group (…or, the Downside of Breaking the Ice) - (Archived)

Arctic ModeratorEmbarking on one of our more adventurous vacations, in June my wife and I decided (that is, I decided and then begged relentlessly until she agreed) to fly to the Canadian Arctic and camp on an ice floe. My reason for going was simple: alarmed by all the news about global warming, I wanted to experience the land, culture and wildlife before it all melts away. It was a five night trip, although 24 hours of sunshine rendered “night” a meaningless term. There were nine of us in total, a small but very lively group from England, Scotland, Japan, Germany, America and, to headline news in his own country, the first Guatemalan ever to travel so far north.

We flew to the little Inuit town of Pond Inlet, situated at the top of Baffin Island. In Pond they say it’s always 72 degrees, but as soon as you step off the plane you realize they’re joking about the latitude and not the temperature. To answer everyone’s next question, in June the thermometer hovers a bit above freezing, but we were all well-equipped for the cold. From Pond, our outfitter and six Inuit guides climbed aboard their snowmobiles and towed us and all the gear east across 40 miles of six foot thick sea ice, to a spot just offshore where we would pitch our tents. Our days were filled with hiking and wildlife viewing of seals, walruses, whales and polar bears. And in case you’ve ever wondered where birds fly when they go north for the summer, just around the bend on the massive grey- and rust-colored cliffs were nested one of the greatest congregations of migratory birds on earth.

It was here that my surroundings finally got to me and gave me the type of idea that can only occur to a market researcher on vacation: one day at the bird cliffs I grabbed my videocam and in the presence of hundreds of thousands of squawking, bird-brained observers, I attempted to hold the world’s most northerly focus group (at least that’s what I’ll claim until proven otherwise!) right on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean.

Recruiting and cooperation was not a problem: the participants really had nowhere else to go. Let that be a lesson to those who think you can’t entice consumers off dry land for a bit of questioning, the only incentive being your promise to eventually stop asking them questions. There was also a fortuitous ethnographic addition to this research when one of the Inuits, who made the mistake of sitting near me, suddenly found himself participating as well, although he seemed far more intent on the soup and sandwiches than on adding to the discussion. However, the secret weapon of my methodology was that my discussion guide, deftly made up as I went along, focused on these travelers’ immediate impressions of the Arctic. There was no straining to recall any fading or selected memories, since we were on site and living the experience in real time.

It is also amazing at how quickly a well-timed icy breeze will allow a moderator to race through an introduction and get quick agreement on all the official assurances of confidentiality. I was even able to slip in the proviso that all bets were off should anyone post the session on YouTube. To be fair though, the session didn’t reveal much in the way of confidential (nor sometimes even coherent) discussion, aside from their disturbingly eloquent abuse of the moderator.

Two challenges of Arctic moderating are that, not unlike the 140,000 caribou that graze on Baffin Island, a herd mentality can quickly overcome a group, and that cold temperatures can also work against you. For example, I tried to ask a quick polling question about the group’s satisfaction with the trip thus far. Normally I would have had them quietly write down a number from 1 to 10, and then go around the room (or in this case, the ice floe) to have them read out their numbers. After that I would have probed for the reasons behind their ratings. But since pens would have frozen and we didn’t have paper, I just had them tell me out loud. Only later did I realize I could have asked them to write the number in the snow. Another lesson learned: always ask yourself how McGuyver would have done it and use your natural surroundings wherever possible. Needless to say, they all gave tens, although my trained ear sensed a hint of underlying sarcasm. It always helps to tape these sessions to make sure afterward.

What’s more, it didn’t help the bias of the group that sitting in with us was one of the outfitters who organized the trip, a Montrealer named Charles. Normally, I would not have allowed him to participate, but as there was no one-way mirror available, we couldn’t just tuck him away with a bowl of M&Ms to quietly watch. There were some caves on the nearby shore, but lacking a generator or 40-mile long extension cord to plug in at Pond, a video feed was out of the question. Most importantly though, Charles knew where all the cracks in the ice were hidden beneath the snow, and I just couldn’t take the chance of his feeding me to the seals if I tried to shoo him away. Nor could I try the ol’ “Charles-you-have-a-phone-call”-to-get-him-out-of-the-room routine because, aside from us not even being in a room, my cell phone didn’t work out there anyway. This, I thought with a wry and somewhat frostbitten smile, is where a good facility pays for itself. But no worries, Charles’ didn’t hire me to do this research. And besides, he didn’t offer his opinion until after the others gave theirs. Never forget that a good moderator always controls for group dynamics.

Although the previous two days of camping allowed our entire group to build a healthy rapport,?? and dare I say, mutual respect for each other,?? we were, after all, on vacation. Which leads to another lesson: on-site groups in harsh, isolated environments can lead to an especially high level of frank feedback and off-color jokes. And the aforementioned cheap shots at the moderator. Of course, no moderator wants to be the center of attention, and so it was heartening to see the participants poke even more cruel fun at each other in a tone that fell somewhere between Gilligan’s Island and Lord of the Flies. I can only imagine what findings and felonies might have transpired had we stuck it out a whole two hours.

One needs to account for all of this when writing the report, have a thick skin, and filter the information accordingly. As you might have guessed by now, the session soon degenerated into chaos, snowball throwing, and gleeful, unsubstantiated reports of terrorists hiding in the nearby caves. Come to think of it, it was rather like a typical consumer group.
Finally, timing is everything in the Arctic, as the weather conditions can change in a heartbeat. Almost immediately after our session the wind suddenly picked up and by the time we made it back to camp, in near white-out conditions, half of it had collapsed in the 70mph winds and zero-degree wind chill. A harsh environment? Yes. But then again, how many times have we moderators paid the price for failing to fix the umpteenth broken thermostat we’ve found in a freezing focus group room? It just goes to show that research is a tough game no matter where it’s conducted.

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7 responses on “Lessons from the World’s Most Northerly Focus Group (…or, the Downside of Breaking the Ice)

  1. Mike Donatello

    Excellent read! You made my morning.

    I’m going to Alaska in AUG, but research is the last thing on my mind. I have a very expensive new camera that I need to worry about not breaking.

  2. Bruce G. Burton

    The Foolish Husband
    (or, A Haiku to Dave)

    One week on the floes,
    His wife smiles: he now owes her,
    Six weeks in Provence.

  3. Dave Glantz

    I think you’re right Bruce. I owe her big time. (I suppose le “provence” de Saskatchewan is out of the question this time!)

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