In tough economy, many firms opt for surveys, focus groups

As conducting business becomes more complex, some firms are turning to traditional social science methods to get a leg up on competition.

Gone are the times when money flowed through the streets of San José like rainwater. Each colón today has to be earned.

So marketing departments are turning more frequently to the professionals for surveys, focus groups and other techniques to tap the public mind.

Public opinion companies are international now, and many have offices in Costa Rica. UNIMER and CID Gallup are two such firms. Usually such firms have a low profile until election time when their estimates of voter support become top news.

Yet quietly they are conducting all sorts of research, and some results become public. UNIMER, for example, can report that four of every 10 Costa Ricans participate in marketing promotions and that 17 percent of the population is paralyzed by earthquakes.

Says CID Gallup on its Web page: The market changes and the companies to remain competitive should know the variables that affect them, including price and advertising as well as the preference of the consumer.

Such surveys can provide new life to sagging products or they can identify a vacancy in the market for a new product.

The Gallup firm, of course, bears the name of George Gallup, the legendary U.S. pollster who correctly picked the outcome of the 1936 Franklin Roosevelt-Alf Landon presidential elections when others did not. Gallup was a proponent of inferential sampling. His followers usually can assess the public mind with a bit more than 1,000 respondents. By contrast, the Literary Digest predicted that Alf Landon would win the presidency based on more than 2 million postcard respondents. The magazine sought responses from those who owned motor vehicles and those who had telephones, but Gallup tapped the less rich and the poor, the people who re-elected Roosevelt.

Eventually pollsters realized that the bigger market was in advertising and in launching products. Every day various firms conduct telephone surveys in Costa Rica, but many
expats are unaware either because they struggle in Spanish or because their age is outside the parameters of the survey.

The marketplace loves young shoppers.

One of the latest firms to seek professional help with its public image is The Tico Times, which is the subject of a series of focus groups.

Such focus groups are the opposite of surveys where responses from a variety of people are sought. The key to a good focus group is uniformity, whether the 15 or so participants are all mothers with young children or professional sports season ticket holders. The participants are placed in a room where a moderator directs the conversation, sometimes with cues radioed in from the team watching the proceedings through a one-way window.

Something magic happens in a well-managed focus group. The participants begin digging deep and explaining their true feelings. Meanwhile, their words are being taken down on video or sound recordings for future study.

Costa Rica is not as friendly as Madison Avenue to advanced social science techniques, even though the possibility has been here for a long time. UNIMER started in 1987.

The Instituto Costarricense Turismo does its own variation of a survey at the boarding lounge of the international airports and where cruise ships dock. There are some problems with that effort. Generally travelers are not going to express their real feelings to a smiling young lady who is asking questions about their trip. And those who respond are not selected in a random fashion to allow their answers to be inferred to the entire population of tourists. The institute publishes a lot of its data on its Web site.

An apparent big user of social science techniques is Cervercería Costa Rica, the beer company. The frequent introduction of new brands or variations of existing brands suggests a continuing program of market study.

An ominous aspect of public opinion polling is in the creation of a political candidate. Pollsters know where there are openings in the political landscape. One candidate may be too conservative and another too liberal. Campaign managers, using polling data, will attempt to define their candidate so he or she addresses the desires of as many voters as possible, regardless of the candidate’s true opinions and feelings.

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