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I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-20-2006, 02:01 PM   #1
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I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

When we installed our photovoltaic array we had to get both a building permit and a net-metering agreement before HECO would let us tie our panels into their grid. Presumably our names were put into government & utility databases which would only be used for good.

Then I got a hand-addressed letter to "Homeowner" from the U of Illinois College of Engineering. I almost threw it away with the junk mail but my curiosity got the better of me:
"Aloha Sun-powered homeowner:
I am writing to inform you of a research project to provide valuable information about the reasons individuals choose to invest in residential solar energy and the barriers to more widespread solar energy use.
We have commissioned Ward Research to conduct a series of focus groups on photovoltaic energy use. Your input is extremely valuable to help us to better understand adoption of residential PV energy systems. We would appreciate your participation in this study and you will be compensated for your time.
Sincerely,
Jeff Mikulina
Researcher"

Mikulina's name rung a bell, and Google told me that he's also the head of the local Sierra Club chapter. Somehow he lives in Hawaii yet makes his living from U of I, which seems like a pretty good deal. In his spare time he's also leading one of HECO's most vocal opponents to their development plans to destroy a highly visible ridgeline with utility poles. They've also repeatedly thwarted the development plans of the state legislature and many local companies. The Sierra Club is litigious, they use publicity very well, and they're successful-- when the Sierra Club speaks around here, developers tremble. So I doubt that Mikulina is anybody's paid researcher lapdog, especially for HECO or the state. I also don't think this research would be used by HECO to beat the state into giving out more solar subsidies, but I could be wrong.

Anyway our kid has her annual Kumon awards ceremony on the same night as the focus group, so I sent my regrets to the focus group and asked them to let me know if they changed the date.

Yesterday we got a pre-printed postcard: "We thought we'd try one more time to see if you are interested. Since you are one of only a handful of homeowners currently using grid-connected photovoltaic on Oahu, we really could use your help. You will be compensated $100 for your time."

On the drive home from school I asked our 13-year-old: "Have you ever done any role-playing where you have to put yourself in someone's position and decide what they should do?" I was informed that she's an expert in telling people what they should do. "Well then, read this postcard and tell me what you think I should do."

Her response was more or less:
"Holy shicow, Dad, $100?!? Have a good time at the focus group!"
"But, honey, what about your awards ceremony?"
"I don't want to go to that anyway because I'm taking care of a neighbor's pets that evening! Wow, $100!!"
"Oh, OK. Thanks."

So as near as I can tell, I'm going to be paid $100 to swill coffee for two hours while bragging about our PV array to strangers who will record my every word for posterity to study. Heck, I do that in my driveway several mornings a week for free. I might even shave before I drive down there. Is this a great country or what?!?

Anyone else ever been part of a focus group? Any surprises or problems I should watch out for?
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-20-2006, 04:51 PM   #2
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

Don't buy the timeshare no matter how good the deal sounds...
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-20-2006, 04:55 PM   #3
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

Yeah if some rolldown doors at all the entrances start to slam shut, make sure you roll under before they close all the way.

Might be something other than timeshares. Could be a bunch of knuckledraggers hired by the local power companies planning to spend a couple of hours teaching you that solar arrays cause cancer.

What a shock that the county or the power company sold your name and address to other parties.

More fun and data mining...
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-20-2006, 09:06 PM   #4
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

When I was employed as a IT Director, I would get called to participate in either one on one either in person or by phone, or focus groups. Over the last 4 years, I would make about between $5k to $6k annually, usually in cash. When the focus group was in the early evening or during lunch, we would get fed as well. I used to get $200 to $250 for 2 hours "work". To insure full participation, they would bring in 1 to 2 extra people. So on occasion, my name would be called and I would be excused from participating and I would walk away with 2 bills anyway. I wouldn't mind being called for one of these once a week but alas my unemployment status has evaporated this nice source of income.
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-20-2006, 09:10 PM   #5
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

I just got a survey in the mail from Wells Fargo that enclosed a nice new dollar bill for filling it out. I admit, I kept the dollar bill and threw away the survey.
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-20-2006, 11:01 PM   #6
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Martha
I admit, I kept the dollar bill and threw away the survey.*
(Voice over) "Lawyers-- behind closed doors!"
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-20-2006, 11:06 PM   #7
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Martha
I just got a survey in the mail from Wells Fargo that enclosed a nice new dollar bill for filling it out. I admit, I kept the dollar bill and threw away the survey.
By accepting the nice new $1 bill, weren't you contractually obligated to complete the survey.
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-20-2006, 11:22 PM   #8
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

Years ago, at least 15, I was asked to participate in a focus group for HP who was designing portable computers. Got ~$50 for my opinions. Told them the keys as configured would be tough for fat-fingered guys to work with, and that the screen should be low-wide so that a sales person could keep eye contact with the customer while seeing the input/results. Took my hubby to dinner.
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-21-2006, 10:26 AM   #9
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Martha
I just got a survey in the mail from Wells Fargo that enclosed a nice new dollar bill for filling it out. I admit, I kept the dollar bill and threw away the survey.
Heh, I just got a Nielsen mailing with five one dollar bills!

Quote:
Originally Posted by vagabond
By accepting the nice new $1 bill, weren't you contractually obligated to complete the survey.
You know, that actually messed with my mind a bit. Well, not the contractual part, but I was actually feeling guilty for tossing the survey and pocketing the money. But really I almost threw the thing away without opening it; I only opened it because it was first class mail, and even then I almost tossed it unopened. The $5 surprised me, but I didn't agree to anything, so there. Besides, I haven't watched any TV for weeks and would've sent them a blank "diary", anyway. (I watch DVD movies but not TV recently.)
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-21-2006, 12:26 PM   #10
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

Quote:
Originally Posted by BigMoneyJim
Besides, I haven't watched any TV for weeks and would've sent them a blank "diary", anyway. (I watch DVD movies but not TV recently.)
Man, if you'd told Nielsen that, all the major networks would've abandoned their TV schedules and worked harder on getting shows out on the Internet & NetFlix. At the very least we'd have TiVos with 10-terabyte hard-drives and automatic hands-free commercial skipping.

When the new fall TV shows come out, we'll know who to blame!
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-21-2006, 03:15 PM   #11
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

The automatic hands free commercial skipping did briefly appear in a DVR product from a company that shortly thereafter enjoyed a good drubbing at the hands of some lawyers.

And it also appeared in some vcr's, although the method used was almost immediately foiled by the broadcasters who changed the pre and post commercial blanking so they stopped working.

Which begs the same question as the guys who figured out how to foil the "telemarketer zapper" products. Someone spent money and went to some effort to avoid you and your "services"...by foiling that expenditure and effort, do you imagine they'll now cheerily agree to accept you and your "service"?
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-26-2006, 11:18 PM   #12
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

The focus group was a good gig.

You would think that Hawaii would be a hotbed of PV activity.

You would be wrong. Only 26 photovoltaic construction permits have been issued on Oahu and only 12 of those people agreed to attend a focus group. Nine actually showed up-- a bunch of middle-aged white guys and one woman (married to a middle-aged white guy). Admittedly people have installed off-grid systems without bothering with permits but even if the ratio of scofflaws:compliers is 3:1 that means there are only 100 PV arrays on the island.

Even among this august group I felt like the ER in a room full of hard-charging senior business executives. (It's because I was the ER in a roomful of execs.) One of them is an architect and an artist in his 70s, "retired" but working part-time (40 hours/week) on consulting contracts and art shows. Another is an environmental scientist/professor & deepwater sailor in his 50s(?), and the third guy is, ironically, a HECO manager in his 50s. All of us are solar geeks from way back who could remember Carter's system on the White House roof. This, of course, was before the focus-group leader was born.

When asked why we had PV systems, the HECO guy said that it was pretty much expected of them. He's both a meteorologist and a mechanical engineer with a south-facing roof on a sunny ridge so he felt obligated to give it a try. The other two said that their credibility depended on walking their talk. The professor showed us a photo of his house with the PV & solar-water arrays and his two Toyota Priuses poking their noses out of the garage. When asked why I had a PV system I said "Money."

Spouse & I were the only ones who had built our own (with contractor help on the electrical side). Everyone else had hunted for contractors with widely varying degrees of success. One guy had waited nine months for his panels to be shipped from the Mainland. Another guy had wrangled for weeks with a roofer to get a warranty for the panel -rack holes drilled through the shingles. A third had insisted that the installer use adhesives without making roof holes, and he has no idea how his system will survive the next hurricane. The professor has batteries and can go off-grid if he desires but the rest of us are grid-tied. The professor had spent four years doing environmental research on Eniwietok so he was also accustomed to an all-gas kitchen and oil lamps.

Everyone had a handle on the money aspect. The HECO engineer is finishing his installation over three different tax years for three sets of credits and he makes more power than he consumes (he bought a massive 6 KW inverter). The architect is doing his PV array as part of a house remodel. The professor had actually been on the state board that invented the first batch of tax rebates, and he has graduate students analyzing his system's costs & performance for class projects. Two of them are part of this year's effort to raise the state tax credit to $5000 (!!). However it never occurred to any of them to save money by doing their own work or buying used equipment. There was some complaining about matching panels, the quality of work, and other typical grumbling of the type normally heard from people who didn't get their hands dirty. One guy actually paid HECO to replace his new digital meter with the old analog model because his spouse complained that she couldn't see the digital meter turning backwards.

We were the leader's second focus group so he had already formed some conclusions. When he asked what barriers had kept us from installing PV systems before now, we all agreed that it was the high cost and the lack of reliable equipment (especially DC-AC inverters). A different barrier was the lack of grid-tie systems-- having to deal with storage batteries & special (expensive) appliances. It took a while to develop cheap reliable grid-tie inverters and then HECO had to work out a grid-tie reimbursement system for state approval.

The two biggest factors that removed our barriers were home shows displaying PV systems (where I first realized that grid-tie was ready for prime time) and financial incentives. When prompted by the leader, we all agreed that planning to stay in our homes for at least 10 more years was also an important factor.

Although the architect and the professor wanted "green" systems, oddly enough none of the members thought that rising oil prices were an issue. Everyone agreed that they'd soon be paying $4-5/gallon for gas and 25-30 cents/KWHr for electricity but no one saw that as a long-term concern. The HECO engineer said that the island's electrical infrastructure would be a huge problem in about 10-15 years and our bills would spike up to pay the overhaul costs. To me this seems similar to a retiree in his 60s who worries a lot less about inflation than an ER in his 40s.

A surprising incentive would be eliminating permit fees. We all knew the story of one contractor who basically educated the state's entire permit department on PV systems, because we'd all used his pre-approved system design & model numbers to get our own permits approved. We all spent at least $400 on permit fees and another $150 to pay a "runner" to file the forms and stand in the lines. However the bureaucratic frustration was apparently worth far more than trying to raise the tax credits beyond $5000.

The architect/artist is a socially responsible investor. He, with a straight face, said that he only invests in socially responsible mutual funds & bonds that meet his environmentally-friendly objectives. His felt that more people should do so because it was in everyone's best long-term interest. I objected that he could appreciate his position at this stage of his life but that I doubted his kids/grandkids would share his views. He said that his teenage grandson is very supportive, so I asked him to see if his grandson would donate three months' allowance to the Sierra Club. We'll have to see how that works out...

They served box dinners, we had an enjoyable two hours bragging talking about our favorite subjects, and we were each paid $100 cash for our "expenses". I'd do it again!
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-27-2006, 11:24 AM   #13
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Nords
A surprising incentive would be eliminating permit fees.* We all knew the story of one contractor who basically educated the state's entire permit department on PV systems, because we'd all used his pre-approved system design & model numbers to get our own permits approved.* We all spent at least $400 on permit fees and another $150 to pay a "runner" to file the forms and stand in the lines.*
I like that, it would be valuable whatever your taxable income.*
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-30-2006, 06:20 AM   #14
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

I do these all the time for Best Buy

I get paid $100 to $150 to sit there for an hour or so, eat free food, and talk about gadgets which I usually do for free.

I love them. I've also done some on judging new cars.


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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 05-30-2006, 09:28 AM   #15
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

Although I tried, except for a couple, I was unable to break into the non-IT focus groups.
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 06-01-2006, 01:33 PM   #16
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Martha
I just got a survey in the mail from Wells Fargo that enclosed a nice new dollar bill for filling it out.* I admit, I kept the dollar bill and threw away the survey.*
When engineering firms send me surveys they usually come with crisp new $5 bills. I don't always fill them out, but I do if I'm not too distracted with higher priority activities. On the other hand, if they only sent me a buck, I think I would just feel insulted and toss the paperwork.
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 06-01-2006, 05:35 PM   #17
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Martha
I just got a survey in the mail from Wells Fargo that enclosed a nice new dollar bill for filling it out.* I admit, I kept the dollar bill and threw away the survey.*
So much for banker's strategic marketing, they could probably have gotten the same response rate if they had taped a penny to the survey and said "A penny for your thoughts"
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)
Old 06-01-2006, 05:43 PM   #18
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Re: I'm not looking for a job, but... (a continuing series)

Including a buck in a survey/poll increases your returns by a surprising percentage. I forget the number, but its at least a third higher. And the folks are also easily swayed, so your clever survey/poll questions are even more effective
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