My First Paid Focus Group Experience

A lot of folks have asked me what it’s like to participate in a paid focus group – it’s actually kind of fun.

A few years ago, I signed up with a handful of local market research companies. You provide a lot of demographic information and it usually results in a call every six months. This particular time it was through Observation Baltimore. They’re local to Baltimore, you can probably find a handful near you by searching for “focus group” and the major metropolitan city you’re near (and willing to drive to) or by visiting Greenbook, which is aimed more for companies looking to hire a focus group marketing company.

If you want to find good focus groups, I recommend signing up for Respondent. You will be able to search for focus groups, rather than get put on a list, and find the ones that you’re likely to qualify for. The more general ones pay less, like a casual dining restaurant focus group pays $150 per 90 minutes but one for people in the shipbuilding industry pays $200 for 60 minutes (fewer people qualify for that). Free to join and everything is easily searchable.

Table of Contents
  1. Pre-qualification Process
  2. Pay / Compensation
  3. The Focus Group Experience
  4. Would I Do It Again?

Pre-qualification Process

The process started with an email asking me to fill out a survey about home improvement. It didn’t take long to fill out but I would soon see the same questions again.

About a day or so after I filled out the survey, a rep from the focus group called me. They would ask me some of the same questions again, probably to confirm my answers. (I would see the exact same questions on a paper survey once I got there)

I don’t recall all the questions but the seemed to drive towards learning how handy we were. I think I would qualify myself as “barely competent” (at the time, now I’m “moderately competent bordering on disastrous in certain situations!).

Pay / Compensation

A hundred bucks cash… for 90 minutes on the panel, plus another ten bucks to cover parking. 90 minutes was just the panel, it didn’t include the pre-selection or travel or all the time answering the survey and taking their phone calls.

It’s good money for sure but not something you can do all the time. For a steadier drip of earnings I lean towards online sources like Survey Junkie and InboxDollars. You don’t earn as much per “session” but it’s a nice little bit each month.

The Focus Group Experience

It was a 12 person focus group, a good spread of folks who were good enough to be contractors to those who couldn’t tell you the difference between a Philips and a flat head screwdriver.

I found the panel to be interesting and fun.

I was studying how they worked to eventually write an article about them, so it was a bit meta, but I also wanted to be an engaged and honest contributor. They were giving me $100 for my time so I was going to give them an honest effort… plus it was easy. I just had to share my opinion on things!

There were twelve panelists plus a moderator in a conference room. The moderator just asked us questions about our experience making home improvements. We’d talk about different home improvement stores in the region (for us it was Home Depot, Lowes, and ACE Hardware) and it wasn’t as clear what they were getting at.

Eventually, as the minutes progressed, we started to delve deeper into what improvements we’d worked on recently, who we used, etc.

I think the client was actually a flooring installer in the area that relied on a cartoon caricature of the founder in all of their commercials (if you live in the Maryland area, you’d recognize them). The last part of the focus group involved us watching various versions of a commercial, cartoon, and live-action, and seeing how we felt about each one.

Then, nearly 90 minutes on the dot, we were done, thanked, and excused.

Would I Do It Again?

At the time I did this focus group, I had another, later, meeting in Baltimore so it worked out nicely. If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have done it simply because it ends up being 30 minutes of driving each way, 90 minutes for the focus group, plus all the other time. That’s nearly 3 hours for $100 – not a bad haul but it happens to be inconvenient times for my personal schedule (kids going to bed and all).

I would end up doing a few more paid focus groups (one was for the Washington D.C. metro and the other was for another local company), each time netting $100 or $120 depending on the length.

I’ll tell you what though, $100 cash in an envelope is a pretty solid payday for 90 minutes of chatting.

And that Benjamin was the crispest cleanest bill I’d ever seen. I kind of felt bad folding it up in my wallet.

Have you ever participated in a focus group?

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a thirty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  1. John Wedding says

    I attended a radio broadcasting focus group a few years ago for $50. We listened to 600 three-second clips of familiar songs — basically enough to recognize them — and they asked us to rate how much of a fit they’d be for a classic rock station.
    There are certainly worse ways to earn a nice dinner out.

      • John Wedding says

        Music genres evolve with time.

        I recall finding it odd that U2’s “Mysterious Ways” was in the mix. That didn’t seem to be “classic rock” to me at the time, but it may have to a younger participant.

        Probably what they were doing was taking a pulse on what people thought “classic rock” was, given that they already listened to classic rock stations.

        Learning about your audience, seeing what they like, and tweaking to match those better.

  2. Rae says

    I just found your article because I’m about to go to my first focus group and I’m a little nervous. It’s a 30-minute drive one way for me as well, and only $75 (not that that is anything to scoff at, I work retail and that’s more than I make in an 8 hour day) and was starting to question whether or not I made the right decision signing up for these. Like, yeah I’m opinionated, but what to expect?! Thank you for sharing your experience!

  3. George Kuhn says

    Thanks for sharing. Some focus groups can be more engaging and fun that others. It really depends on the topic. Glad you were willing to participate. Always makes our jobs easier when we have willing participants like yourself to participate. Not all market research is scams.

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