5 Additional Expert Tips for Effective Focus Group Moderation

Five Additional Tips to Help You Fine Tune Your Moderating Skills

In my previous post “6 Tips for Effective Focus Group Moderation,” I addressed the factors and tips necessary to ensure focus group success. Once you have followed the tips to make your intent clear, establish a safe group environment, redirected unfocused conversation or commentary by blaming time, and insisted on participation from all members, you will be well on your way to having a successful focus group. These tips are the antes to play; without them, you can only hope for luck to give you a quality focus group outcome (I am dead serious on this count).

Beyond those initial basic tips, I have noticed a few deeper issues, nuances that are important to know for effective moderation. Read on for more inside tips.


The First 5 to 10 Minutes of the Group are Critical

I remember when I learned that Bob Hope, famous comedian for decades and responsible for hosting the Oscars an incredible 18 times, got nervous every time before the event, it was a huge relief to me. Mort Lachman, a writer on Hope's staff, recalled about his anxiousness:

“He was in absolute, in a frenzy of nervousness, hysteria, fear, all of that, and I would walk him toward the edge of the stage. And then the music would start up, 'Thanks for The Memories,' and all of a sudden, another man, confident and in charge of the whole world, would walk out on the stage.”

I still get nervous right at the beginning of every focus group I moderate. Over time, I learned that tension was healthy, as it had a purpose; it was to keep me focused on the first 5-10 minutes of the group, which is so very critical to its success.

Right from the outset, remember your job as a moderator is to get this group of people to spill the beans on  the topic you are researching, and to keep them focused on what you need them to talk about. Nothing else. Not your leadership position in the room. Not what you have to say. Only to enable the application of their expertise or problem solving ability to the questions at hand.

This makes the moderator a leader in an expedition for answers, and that calls for a relaxed and easy, yet focused and energetic demeanor, as well as the acceptance of responsibility for 1) the pace of the conversation 2) the bar for interest in the topic and 3) the standard for what will be considered a thoughtful answer. That means that you set the example.

How do you do that?


The Relaxed and Easy, While Also Focused and Energetic Demeanor

That sounds like a tall order at first, but when you think about it, these are the kinds of people we are most comfortable conversing with and, on a higher level, helping. Staying relaxed is a function of knowing your material. The guide you’ve written is ambitious, but not overcrowded. Being focused and energetic involves a single-mindedness about the group time; focused on what you will be learning and not on how they perceive you as a moderator, regardless of the situation.


It’s All About That Pace, That Pace… of the Conversation

Sorry about the Meghan Trainor reference, but I digress.

From time to time, you will have individuals in your focus groups who are not as dedicated as others in making sure the group time is successful. They will bring up irrelevant topics or expand on answers based on themselves or their own agendas.  This will require you to move things along, and to do so in a purpose-driven way. Remember, the clock is the bad guy, not you. And hey, no judgments on their comment, but it is time to move the conversation on to more fruitful content. 

A quick joke, or some lighthearted humor is good for almost every group, but at times, it can hijack the group. Stay relaxed, easy, focused and energetic, and let the group know you are going to move on to a new topic. The pace of the group time must enable the handling of the material, provided you have not 1) happened upon a topic where your client specifically wishes you to continue, or 2) been told in advance the subject matter is optional.


Setting the Bar for Interest in the Topic

Well-crafted discussion guides usually address relevant topics to their target audiences, but from time to time, the value of the subject matter is not always clear to the participants. That can cause everything from receiving incomplete or off-point answers to the actual blatant questioning of the relevance of the subject matter.

While this shouldn’t happen often, the moderator must be able to offer insight as to why it is interesting. Most important, the moderator cannot join in the effort to call into question the validity of the question. (Note: there are situations where the question is ludicrous, and if everyone thinks that is the case, it is all the more reason why the answers should be very interesting.)

This is about knowing why things are and should be interesting, which is dictated by knowing your material.


A Thoughtful Answer is the Only Acceptable Answer

This is one that is sometimes challenging to execute in a way where your group participants do not get offended, but essential to know and utilize.  It is much easier if you have done the previous steps before this point, and you have a rapport with your group.

Everyone who has an answer to a question (meaning they didn’t say they have no reference or experience with a particular product or service), should have a thoughtful answer to that question. That means, when you ask, “why did you decide to purchase that particular magnetic field generator?”, you do not get an answer like, “It was cheap.” That may be the main reason, but that wasn’t a thoughtful answer. A thoughtful answer may look like this:

“Because it was cheaper than the others I looked at. Overall, I was looking for a magnetic field generator that could deliver 7 gauss, and all of them could do 7 gauss. This one also had an equal warranty to the others, but was less expensive, so I bought this one.”

This was a thoughtful answer. So how do you do this? By always insisting that your participants offer complete answers, and don’t just offer short, 3-5 word answers. If the answer is short, qualify it.

Moderator: “So why did you choose your magnetic field generators? Jim?

Jim: Because it was cheap.

Moderator: (in a genuinely interested and relaxed tone) Because it was cheap? So is price your only criteria for your mag field generator? What else is important other than price?

Jim: Well, there are other things, it has to make the proper mag field strength, I needed 7 gauss.

Moderator: Is that the only one that did 7 gauss?

Jim:: No, they all did 7 gauss.

Moderator: OK, so what else was a factor?

Jim: that was the only factor.

Moderator: So it was the only other important factor?

Jim: Yes

Guaranteed, if your 3-5 word length responders are met with this deeper level of inquiry each time they offer their short response, they will begin to offer more than just the 3-5 word answer alone.

Side note: It is very important to get that gut reaction, that first knee jerk answer. That is what they will have when you aren’t around to ask them the questions. But, the whole purpose of the research is to get detailed answers for why they feel how they do, and to understand if the knee jerk is just the tip of the iceberg or the iceberg itself.


For Complex Group Research Efforts – Hire an Experienced Moderator     

While it is good to know how to moderate breakout groups and certain qualitative exercises that may be part of a product development effort on your own, it is also important to leave the more complex moderating opportunities to an experienced, professional moderator.

Actionable Research has been delivering effectively moderated group-based marketing research for nearly 2 decades, and specializes in the healthcare, oral health and technology markets.

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