I almost considered a career in market research, but instead of applying my statistics major to advertising and consumer opinion, I got a master's in public health and ended up in actuarial work and health insurance. (This was in my other life, before I made puzzles and trivia my work.)
I've always been interested in consumer panels and focus groups, and even more interested in the easy money they can provide a participant. Over the years, I've been paid for my opinion on movies (attended a discussion group after screening "Ragtime"), ad campaigns for mutual funds, frozen desserts (for FrozFruit - darn, I wish I could have told Snapple that their product tastes like brake fluid), Web sites (in one uncomfortable one-on-one interview, I was asked to review an NYC events site that turned out to be for the New York Times - oops, I proofread puzzles there! I prayed that no one observing behind the one-way mirror knew me), radio programming (Lite-FM had us listen to and rate snippets of songs), you name it!
Food is usually provided, and panel members get to sound off on the topic, and before you know it they hand you some cash or a check.
I connected with a focus group recruiter online (they often advertise in newsgroups or craigslist), who was sending me all over town. You're not supposed to be a subject super-often, but this guy would space things out and not send me to the same places. At one point during a work hiatus a few years ago, I even had 2 groups scheduled for the same day! Unfortunately, my father took ill and was rushed to the hospital, and I had to fly to Miami and cancel those groups. I don't think the recruiter believed my father was really sick, as he hasn't called since.
With work being really busy, and this recruiter ignoring me, I hadn't done many live panels recently. However, I'm enrolled with several market research sites online and constantly fill out questionnaires. Often the online surveys don't pay, but just enter you into a sweepstakes. Even here, I won cash in a drawing last year.
Client companies usually don't want to hear from people working in advertising, market research, or any form of media, and I was constantly getting disqualified as a media person whenever firms contacted me for live studies. Now that I'm no longer working in TV, I decided to just tell them I'm a freelance crossword editor (which I am), and not mention newspapers, publishing, or the like.
It worked! Tonight I went to my first live focus group in ages - reviewing communications from companies to their stockholders. We all had plenty to say (make these things in ENGLISH, not legalese!) and were rewarded nicely for 2 hours of our time. Sandwiches and drinks were provided.
I'm happy to be back as a source of valued consumer opinion. I was reminded of my sister's experience while a student, being pulled off the street to watch a TV pilot. They pushed buttons on the left and right arms of the chair to indicate negative and positive reaction as they viewed. Afterward, there was a discussion and written questionnaire. "This show is horrible. It will never be a hit!" my sister told them - about "Dallas."