This week’s top 10 tips are courtesy of Richard Walker.

Top 10 moderator tips

Richard has been moderating focus groups for almost 15 years, and has lost count of the number of focus groups and workshops moderated over the years – probably more than 300 and possibly fewer than 1000! Here’s his advice on how to run a good focus group with ten handy moderation tips:

10. Keep it interesting / Keep them interested.

The majority of group participants will arrive at a focus group thinking they would rather be doing something else. From the moment they arrive, the onus is on the moderator and support team to ensure the experience is one they enjoy and would advocate! Don’t just leave the hostess to manage the ‘meet and greet’. Get out there yourself and make people feel welcome. And throughout subsequent discussions, the moderator has to prove they are listening to the participants. Revert back to points made earlier in the discussion as evidence to the group that you’re soaking up what they’re telling you!

9. Make it relevant

The way people communicate, interact and share opinion is significantly different to when the focus group boomed in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. The content and the format of the focus groups has to reflect the changes in how we communicate. We suggest using more online channels to deliver pre-group tasks and instructions, or post-group bulletin boards for continued debate. The role of the moderator is to facilitate, and this should involve making available as many tools as possible for participant’s use during the sessions (e.g. online access).

8. Encourage the quiet focus group

All respondents will be waiting for ‘their turn’ to speak. Nervous participants will want to delay ‘their turn’ for as long as possible. It is essential that the moderator encourages the quiet respondents early in the group. Use ‘ice breakers’ and introductions that are fun but not daunting. The group discussion should start with easy ‘fact-based’ questions rather than diving straight into a complex subject matter. If you haven’t heard from someone in the first ten minutes, refer to them by name. These early exchanges set the precedent for the rest of the session.

 7. Dealing with the unruly focus group

Some groups will be noisier than others. The moderator has to be flexible in tone and delivery to match the ‘noise levels’ of the group. A quiet group is not necessarily ‘bad’ and a noisy group is not necessarily ‘good’. Quieter groups allow for more pauses for reflection and considered opinion. Unmanaged noisy groups can fall into the realms of ‘he/she who shouts loudest has their (top-of-mind) opinion heard’. Dominant respondents have to be dealt with early, to avoid disruption and the installation of a group expert / alpha respondent. Don’t be afraid to eject the most unruly  – you will earn respect from the rest of the group who will probably be breathing an equally large sigh of relief. Also, have your retorts to the audience ‘ready to go’. Equip yourself with the verbal direction that will ensure you hold sway over the group – e.g. “I CAN ONLY LISTEN TO ONE CONVERSATION AT ONCE!”

 6. Don’t be afraid of silence

You want respondents to spend time pondering questions. Qualitative research means getting under the skin of the respondent and spending the time to truly understand their attitudes, behaviour, motivations, etc. Do not fall back on the first response as being ‘the answer’. Keep re-phrasing and re-asking the question until you’re sure you’ve truly understood the influencing factors.

5. Play dumb

Playing dumb can also deliver a more colourful and deeper understanding of the issues. As a moderator, it is fine to PRETEND you don’t understand what you’re being told. Say you’re confused, say you don’t understand, and you’ll get another layer of explanation and, with it, another layer of insight. And use this approach to pounce on any apparent contradictions that may emerge from the group!

4. Capture individual views

Within the first half of any group, I like to include either a paired or individual exercise to capture differences in behaviour or opinion. This has the benefit of getting everyone involved in the discussion. But more than that, it is a key tool in ensuring we avoid too much group consensus around the key subject. By displaying the responses of individuals on a flip chart, the participants have to justify differing views, and the disagreement and debate is what leads to deeper understanding.

3. Use projectives – but remember why you’re using them

Projective techniques are useful on a number of levels. They provide something ‘different’ to moderated discussion and allow us to delve deeper into the sub-conscious. Projective techniques are also useful when exploring subject areas that consumers might not necessarily find it easy to elucidate an opinion (e.g. brand perceptions). The moderator must remember why the projective technique is being used! Knowing that a brand is similar in personality to Simon Cowell is one thing, but understanding the relevance of those personality traits and how they come to light is where insights can be formed. A top 10 projectives will follow later in the year – watch this space!

2. Keeping track of time

Poor time keeping can place the whole project in jeopardy i.e. spending too long on certain objectives at the expense of others. Throughout the fieldwork period liaise with the other moderators to understand the depth of insight being reached on each section. A more practical tip – ensure the approximate timings are written on the discussion guide at the appropriate place – so you know roughly where you should be at any given time, and whether you are ahead of, behind or on schedule.

1. Objectives take precedence over discussion guides

Finally, remember that the discussion guide is just a means to an end. The ‘end’ is the research objectives and the role of the moderator is, primarily, to ensure the objectives are fully answered. In terms of practical moderator tips, have the objectives summarised at the front and back of the discussion guide, to keep them front of mind. Also, as respondents are becoming increasingly research and marketing savvy – give the group participants some element of ownership regarding “this is what I’m supposed to find out”. Try using the objectives in the moderator wrap-up at the end of the focus group to get their take on how the discussion has helped answer the big questions.

Feel free to post comments if there are any other hints or tips you’d like to share!