6 Expert Tips for Effective Focus Group Moderation

Six Tips Intended to Help You Moderate Focus Groups Effectively, Wisely Given by a 17-year Veteran of the Practice

Regardless of the negative press they have received, focus groups are still an important research methodology and can provide a wealth of information about your topic/product. There are no substitutes when it comes to fostering constructive conversation or verifying reasons for why something shouldn’t or won’t work.

Despite their strengths, your focus group can quickly lose its value if it is not moderated correctly. Keep reading for Part 1 of our focus group moderation series, focusing on the basics of effective moderation.


Identify and State the Group Goals

Participants in your focus group (should) have already been carefully screened, so the context of your questions is likely to be understood by your participants. Still, it is critical to properly set the tone and path for the group up front so that everyone knows where you are heading. Use some discernment, however; you don’t want to give them too much information or give them any of your potential hypotheses, but you do want them to know what you’re talking about.


  • “Today we will be talking about instruments used in trauma cases, and how we might improve certain aspects of their use.”
  • “Our topic today is concerning the tools you use in your day-to-day work, and we’ll ask you to help us define a better solution for some of them.”
  • “We’re going to discuss how the choices your company makes impact its ability to produce effective products, both positively and negatively.”


Create a Safe Environment

Focus groups, by their nature, enable you to have an open-ended discussion while receiving the added benefit of a multitude of perspectives and inputs. Problem solving in a group can help identify trends and strength of conviction, as well as drill down into ideas that others had not considered (which could be very valuable).

Both the upside and downside of groups is that they are full of personalities. Depending on the composition of your group, you may have participants who are more dominating, or their vocation or title may cause others to defer to them. It is paramount that participants feel like you want to hear them, and that the environment is safe for them to speak. It will be critical to manage participants who are not courteous to others in the group or the moderator; there are few things that will cause a focus group participant to clam up faster than another offensive participant.  


Blame It on the Clock

To keep the conversation flowing in the right direction and the group time as productive as possible, it is important that participants know ahead of time that you may interrupt or redirect the conversation. The goal is the keep the conversation focused on the research question and to keep strong personalities from dominating the conversation, but saying so may turn people off. The solution: blame the clock. “Excuse me; I’m sorry to interrupt, but we have limited time so I am going to move to another topic.” This tactic not only keeps you on task and in control of your group, it helps keep egos from getting bruised.


A Focus Group is Not a Junior High Dance

As I mentioned, strong personalities can dominate a room, especially if that strong personality carries a job title that others might defer to. By the same token, it is important not to let anyone become a wall flower (get the junior high reference?) and make sure that everyone is contributing to the conversation. Each participant has been recruited for their opinion; they are being compensated for it. Simple things (like having name badges where you can see them well enough to call them by name) are important. Encourage participants to ask each other for their opinions. I’m not suggesting that you badger respondents; some people just don’t want to talk as much as others. In the end, however, if you did a good job of making it a safe environment, everyone you recruited should be expected to contribute their share to the conversation.


Ask Probing Questions…and Keep Asking Them

It is a best practice to try to anticipate probes and integrate them into your discussion guide.  Sometimes, however, ideas come up that are unexpected and it will be critical to be prepared for these situations with the right question structures.

Unless the specific question was already answered, you can probe as often as you like, and if done properly, the quality of the answers goes up as you probe more deeply. The key to probing is using ‘why’, ‘what’ or ‘how’ to begin each question. “Why do you feel this way?” “What specifically caused you to think that?” Or, one of my personal favorites, “How do you mean that?” To the rest of the group, good questions include: “How does everyone else feel about that?” or “What do you all think about this?” Then be prepared to debrief them one at a time, starting with the person who seemed most anxious to answer the question.

These questions will go a long way to better understand your group participants’ thoughts behind their answers. Be sure, however, not to belabor the point. If everyone agrees, and the “why” has been properly answered and agreed to, then move on to the next topic. The value of the responses goes way down after it has been asked and answered.


The Atmosphere of the Group is Set by the Moderator

If there is one key takeaway for new or up-and-coming moderators, I would make these recommendations: create a thoughtful, permissive atmosphere. Remember to direct the conversation, not be the center of the discussion. Be yourself. Make participants want to work with you and other group members to solve the problem posed by the research question. Ask for permission to interrupt, change subjects, or probe in key areas up front so members know what to expect. Remind members that there are no right or wrong answers – you’re just looking for their opinion or experiences. Lastly, be positive, be cheerful, and keep things conversational. Participants should feel like this is a casual conversation with colleagues; it’s not an inquisition or survey.

The ultimate test is, when your session is finished, does everyone immediately jump and dive for the door, or do they remain seated, talking to you and others at the table? This happens often at the end of my groups, and when it does, I know I have created a mini, short-lived community that doesn’t want their time together to end just yet.

If you keep these basic thoughts in mind, you will have a great chance for a group that is fun for the participants, but most importantly a highly valuable exercise in your research process.


Actionable Tips for Focus Group Moderation

David Cristofaro, Founding Principal of Actionable Research, has been moderating focus groups for 17 years. If you’re interested in more tips on focus group moderation, subscribe to our blog to get updated when Part II comes out!

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