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Mock trials important part of business

Jackson company wants to know what you think

Mock trials have become big business to Linda Harmon.

Harmon, owner of Focus One in Jackson, a marketing research firm, started the company nine years ago after she could not find a focus group for an advertising client.

“There was nobody in town to do it, so I decided to establish a marketing and research firm that would include focus groups and other services,” Harmon said.

With more than 10,000 people in the databank and many more that were picked at random, Harmon`s business has doubled annually. She pays for people`s opinions, sometimes $125 a day for mock trials.

“People should be compensated,” she said. “It`s a very fair exchange. The information we retrieve is so valuable to the company.”

Mock trials have become the firm`s specialty, accounting for half of its business. Casino studies, product testing and various surveys make up most of the rest.

Focus One offers two formats for litigation research. The first, and least expensive, is usually a three-hour focus group where issues of a case are presented and a group of 12 discuss each side and sometimes deliberate. For comparison, usually two groups are done for each case with the average price per group of $2,500, she said.

The second format involves a six-hour mock trial, with 24 participants who listen to several hours of live or taped presentations and then complete questionnaires. This format is more extensive, but is most frequently used. The price tag can be around $10,000 compared to the national average of around $50,000, she said.

“We used to have about two or three mock trials a year,” she said. “Now we do about two or three a week. So many litigators now are aware of the effectiveness of mock trials and the knowledge that comes from results in focus groups gives them a competitive edge. They find out which points to emphasize in an actual case, and sometimes, they know whether to go ahead and settle a case before it goes to trial.”

Potential mock jurors do not know what project they will participate in prior to a mock trial. Focus One only advertises “social research projects,” she said. Once their “mission” is explained to them, she asks participants – and clients, too – to keep an open mind, she said.

“Sometimes, clients will sit behind the (one-way) mirror and become defensive when they hear respondents criticize their product,” she said. “What they need to do is listen to what is being said to find out why misconceptions are present and how they can be overcome.

“Even though mock jurors – and real jurors – can have the law read to them and told what their responsibilities are, they can come to a conclusion that is totally unfounded and ridiculous. But it doesn`t matter. People still go on emotions and reactions. If something is triggering them to feel one way or the next, then that needs to be addressed by the litigators,” Harmon said.

The Jackson area is appealing to many companies who rely on market research because it is so unique, she said.

“Jackson is a fresh market,” Harmon said. “It hasn`t been over-surveyed, and people here are so open with their opinions. That`s a very big attraction for outside business. The trouble we have is convincing people it is legitimate research. When you call people on the phone and tell them you`re actually going to pay them cash for their opinions, they`re skeptical. One lady wanted to do it, but she said it sounded too good to be true.”

Part of the attraction of the job for Harmon is finding out what makes people tick. Among the surveys Focus One conducts for businesses, one is the “tryer-rejector” questionnaire, which is aimed at customers who shopped at a business, a car dealer, for instance, but made a purchase from a competitor, she said.

“Tryer-rejectors are great sources of information,” Harmon said. “We ask them if their decision was based on something the salesman did, something that happened with customer service and other questions until we get an idea of why they didn`t make a purchase.”

Recent purchasers are good sources of customer satisfaction. “Just because they bought an automobile at a dealership doesn`t mean they`re happy. They make go ahead and buy it, but they tell their friends they`ll never go back,” Harmon said.

Image-testing provides companies with the awareness level of consumers.

“Perception is reality,” Harmon said. “Potential customers might not have ever thought about going to a particular furniture store and we find out why they didn`t. If they think the particular furniture store has the highest prices in town, it doesn`t matter if it doesn`t. There`s a perception problem to deal with.”

During these sessions, about eight to 10 people have a round table discussion and are asked questions such as: Why have you gone to the same dry cleaners for the last five years? Why did you switch? What ads have you seen for car dealers in the past two weeks? What did you like? What did you not like?

“You`re not asking people what they do, you`re asking people why they do it,” Harmon said. “This is one of the reasons mock trials are very important. It gives litigators insight before an actual jury looks at a case.”

Even though there is a legal monitoring system within the national marketing research association, there are people in the business who make it difficult for legitimate market research firms, she said.

“Some marketers will mask themselves when doing surveys,” she said. “They will say they are conducting a short survey when all they are trying to do is get information about the company so they will know what to sell, or they will tell a caller they need five minutes for a survey that lasts 30 minutes. That gives our industry a bad name.”


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About Lynne W. Jeter

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