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Focus Groups: The Moderator

The focus group: Who should actually lead the discussion?

Nothing you do will have a bigger impact upon the success or failure of your focus groups than the decision you make here. Make it carefully.

Think about this for a second. If you take your car to a mechanic, and he does not fix it, your car will not run properly. In comparison, the focus group moderator could completely botch your groups, and you might never know it. At least two bad things could result: 1) You could make some really ill-advised, expensive decisions that would result in no competitive advantage or improved market position, or 2) you could fail to develop insight that could lead to higher profitability and better market position.

Seriously. There are NO barriers to entry to becoming a focus group moderator. Zero. There is no certification process. No license to get. I have seen people with no experience or training decide, after watching three or four groups, that it would be the perfect job for them to do from home after their babies were born. That and social media consulting. Start up expense? Business cards.

Focus group moderating can be lucrative, and leading groups looks fairly easy to those who fancy themselves to be good with people or are easily conversational – just like Phil Mickelson makes it look easy to hit a golf ball left-handed straight down the fairway. (But in golf, if you land in the rough you KNOW it was a bad shot – it’s simple to quantify good vs. the bad – NOT so with moderating.)

There are atrocious moderators out there who are completely comfortable in the knowledge that no one can ever PROVE their response or approach or moderating style was wrong. They are safe in their incompetence, because there is no safety net to protect clients from bad advice. I have seen moderators do a terrible job in the discussion room: lead respondents, stop with surface answers, put down disagreement, show favoritism, ignore body signals from people who want to talk, and be intimidated by dominating participants, only to have the client sing out “nice job!” when the charlatan came back into the viewing room.Their clients just don’t know any better.

The truth is that it is pretty easy to lead a lively group discussion. It’s a little harder to keep participants on subject, to keep the discussion moving, to bring out the people who are not participating, to inhibit the dominators, to bring people back to the subject when they stray, and to move them along to the next topic when they run out of productive discussion, all the while keeping the project objectives in mind.

You may be tempted to use a newer moderator because she is almost certainly cheaper, she may be available quickly, or he may be a fraternity brother. Or you may have heard that Bob in the PR Department has experience leading his Society of Young Republican discussions every week. He’s willing to do the groups, and he would be lot cheaper. And who knows, each of these may even do a decent job. But if they don’t, how will you know? And what will you trade off by having them do the groups?

Experienced moderators can be a godsend to clients who want an informed and objective perspective on various marketing issues pertaining to the project. Many of them have direct experience in the product category, speak the language, know which facilities are the good ones, and aren’t afraid to take a stand when it comes to projecting an opinion that may be politically difficult. (You know, the one where someone has to tell the CEO that his nephew’s idea for mass marketing tin-foil hats truly sucks.)

Focus group moderators are paid pretty well to know what is important and relevant to the objectives of the study, to understand implications of verbal and body language, to interpret ambiguous or incongruent behaviors, to conceive and develop strategies for getting the answers necessary to reach a successful conclusion, to generate and develop new ideas, and to use qualitative methodologies to project behavior. They not only have to be practiced psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists (disciplines from which most of the best moderators come), but they first and foremost must be superb marketers.

And what makes a superb marketer? Study and experience. Before you can know or be able to predict what REALLY moves people to act, you have to have lived through a hundred or so new marketing campaigns and new product launches. You have to have experience with failure as well as success, to develop a sense for what BOTH look and feel like.

And what about companies doing their own focus groups with their own moderators? We have already mentioned the obvious problems with objectivity and internal politics. That said, people on the inside have an in-depth knowledge of the product, company vision and strategy, and current marketing and advertising that outsider consultants can rarely equal. However, unless they also have experience leading groups, and unless they do focus groups constantly and practice these skills, they are unlikely to have the level of professional expertise that is necessary to do a first class job.

Other guidance and benefits that may be offered by a professional and experienced moderator:

  • Help clarifying the objectives of the research and sharpening the focus of the discussion guide, to prevent “while we’ve got them there, let’s ask…” thinking (this can tremendously dilute the effectiveness of the groups)

  • Providing and objective perspective from the project beginning through the final analysis – they have no corporate objective or axes to grind. They can even help you see through that stuff.

  • Stay focused on clients’ bigger marketing questions, to ensure the research findings are relevant and actionable and actually address the objectives.
  • Provide external credibility and clarity to internal politics when necessary. When you need someone to present the findings to management, especially when they are likely to argue about the findings, the professional researcher can come in very handy.

In short, a professional moderator can make you think in different ways, explore divergent points of view, challenge the corporate perspective, destroy groupthink, undermine political gamesmanship, and find better, innovative ways to market the company. She or he can also make you look very good and very smart to dubious C-Suite executives who want to second-guess every marketing decision.

So BE CAREFUL. Investigate the experience of the moderators you are considering. Ask them how many groups they have done. Ask them to explain some of their techniques for establishing rapport with respondents, and for handling defensive or quiet participants. Ask them how they know they are getting “real” answers in the groups. See how quickly they “get” the marketing issues, and ask their advice regarding how your groups should be set up. Ask them for references, and call the references.

For more information, take a look at the website of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association. (www.qrca.org) This is a very well-informed group of professional researchers who spend most of their days thinking of ways they can do a better job improving their clients’ profitability.

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  1. Hi,

    This is a really informative post. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. Loud & clear! I do agree completely.
    All the best from Madrid, Spain.

  3. “From home after their babies were born.” WOW, really? As a mother who works from home, I am offended.

    • Why? Did you read the first part of that sentence? What I wrote was not about Mothers working from home; it was about people with no experience and/or training deciding they can moderate focus groups – that was just one example. It could have been – “guys who have been laid off from their marketing positions”, or “truck drivers who have watched a YouTube video”. The point is, with no barriers to entry, not even the slightest accreditation, you have to be careful whom you hire.

      • Martha J. says:

        You could have used another example, but you didn’t. Instead you chose to imply that being a work at home mom means that you are unqualified and have no practical experience. Which really it could be true, however that is not a given. And considering the climate in this country in regards to women as mothers, your example was in poor taste.

        • Nope. I did not imply anything about work at home Moms. I merely used that as an example to show how easy it was to get into the business. No credentials. No experience. Just the printing of business cards. Some of the best Moderators I have ever seen are women, but none of them do it part time. They devote a ton of study and time and effort to their craft, and they are worth every penny they are paid.


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