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3 Common Mistakes in Focus Group Moderation

February 27, 2014

As I’ve moved into my current role at Finch Brands (July 2012), spending time in the right places has been a constant consideration. Yet one thing I’ve been greedy about is continuing in the role of Finch Brands’ primary focus group moderator.

This I consider to be time well spent, as I’m not yet ready to relinquish the closeness to the consumer and deep comprehension a participatory role in qualitative research affords. The demands of the travel notwithstanding, it’s also a heck of a lot of fun. There is a sense that moderation is hard work and it can be. Most of the time, being good at it only requires a genuine affection for people and interest in what they have to say.

Having moderated groups – both traditional and non-traditional – for over 16 years, there are common mistakes that are easy for moderators to make. Here are the top 3:

1. Sticking too close to the guide

The most magical and illuminating moments in qualitative research tend to come when you go off script and follow a participant comment in an unpredictable direction. Yet despite limited time and a defined question set, one has to be comfortable enough to let such moments happen. Beyond comfort, the keys to this are Moderator’s Guides that are loose enough to enable some discretion and a plan going in for where time can be lost and gained. One of the other co-consequences of staying too close to the guide is a tendency to repeat topics respondents have addressed in earlier sections. Looking down at your papers rather than listening creates missed opportunities.

2. Reining in your personality too much

There is no reason a focus group has to be dry – in fact, the more entertaining the session for respondents, the more valuable it usually is. Moderators should be much more than stand up comedians and should resist being too opinionated, but the role demands a certain level of connection that being human can help create. This also means that a moderator should feel comfortable gently (and sometimes humorously) challenging respondent opinions that may be inconsistent or using personal touches to shake people out of a late night stupor or transparent group dynamic. I understand the impulse of moderators to try to be like umpires – the less you remember about them, the better – but that is a recipe for a session in which bored participants repeatedly take the easy way out and a lot is left on the table.

3. Trying to be too much like respondents

I have (successfully, I think) moderated focus groups in categories that not only aren’t of any personal interest, but in which my involvement was self-evidently laughable. From urban fashion with an African-American skew to women’s hair accessories to jeans for teen girls. There is an assumption that respondents will open up to moderators they feel are like them – in many cases, that is not only mistaken but dangerous. When I have the opportunity to moderate a group on, say, women’s hairbrushes, being a man with a shaved head is not only a recipe for some bonding humor, it forces respondents to go further in explaining their attitudes and behaviors until they think I fully understand. There can be no nods and winks or silences of assumed comprehension. This is not always true – certain topics are so personal or eccentric that the moderator has to get it to do a good job or project obvious shared experience to promote candor – but these situations are few and far between.

This is not a complete list of mistakes nor is it intended to diminish the many styles that successful moderators bring to their work. Mine is my own and it works for me and our clients. The unifying principle in these three mistake areas is that the most successful groups are ones in which the moderator is comfortable being his/herself.

Bill Gullan, President
Tweeting: @BillGullan

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