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Last year a new Publicis Groupe initiative conducted qualitative research for the French election.

The initial response from participants was pretty much in line with the consensus among French voters: Nicolas Sarkozy was "scary" -- an unknown entity with a lot of ideas, but also a candidate who was viewed as young, ambitious, impulsive, and a departure from the political establishment characterized by former leaders Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterrand.

That reinforcement of the consensus view might have been the end result if not for the difference in the research method: Rather than pack up their opinions, along with their coats, after three hours in a focus group, the participants continued to discuss the election in a closed-community blog for the next two weeks. During that time, they arrived at a different conclusion about Sarkozy that would foreshadow the results of the election.

During the monitored conversations, 250 bloggers moved beyond their early reactions to the candidates and onto a more thoughtful discussion of France and the need for change from the political status quo.

Companies, of course, have increasingly tapped into the potential of consumer-generated media for market research. Blogs may have initially proven more threat than resource, but monitoring that community chatter -- a practice born of necessity -- has since evolved into a means of tracking consumer perceptions. Marketers now use their corporate blogs as an extension of public relations and customer service, and it seems inevitable that qualitative research would migrate online as well.

Now firms with expertise ranging from research and word of mouth to digital media are setting up closed communities for clients to tap into the nuances, the spontaneity and the language of consumers engaging in a leisurely chat, a different dynamic to one where they sit face-to-face in a focus group for a prescribed period of time. Some of the initiatives focus on a specific topic for a couple of weeks; others create a longer, ongoing conversation.

"Long focus groups last for 3 to 3 1/2 hours and afterwards it is difficult to get people to do additional work because they are tired, it's too late," observes Xavier Charpentier, a co-founder of FreeThinking, the Publicis company behind the research. "It's quite different when you are running a qualitative blog: You have people for 10 to 15 days, which is a huge amount of time for them to think about their answers and to challenge your own questions, which makes a big difference in the results. What people say when they talk together is more interesting than what they say when they talk to us. What they say peer to peer is more sincere and sometimes very intimate."

That extended sharing of ideas can produce answers to questions a client might not have even considered.

"What they tend to do is they answer what is the real question in their minds; they just don't answer the question you happen to ask in a focus group. It's more penetrating," says John Woodward, global planning director at Publicis Worldwide. "If you're doing a focus group, you finish, you give people their money, and they leave. But when they step back, people have second thoughts, second opinions. On a blog they can continue that process and ask themselves deeper questions, and you get richer, deeper answers."

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