FEATURE1 April 2011

Hear me out: Let’s get respondents to moderate groups

Ever had an idea that you know is genius, but everybody else thinks is crazy? This month, Dave Stenton of Voodoo Research suggests turning group discussions on their head.

What’s the big idea?
Let’s shake the focus group format up a bit. Instead of a moderator and six or seven respondents, let’s even it up: equal numbers of moderators and respondents.

Sounds complicated. Not to mention more expensive.
Not if you get each of the respondents to take a turn in the moderator’s chair.

I see. Why?
You get a different dynamic. Instead of merely responding to the moderator’s questions, respondents have to formulate their own. Sometimes the questions that are asked are more illuminating than the answers, and at the very least they provide food for thought.

“The format of the focus group has changed little in 50 years, but your contemporary consumer is very different to those of the ’60s. Let’s make them work a little harder”

But if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
The format of the focus group has changed little in 50 years. Even if you run groups online the basic set-up is the same: the moderator asks questions and respondents answer.

But your contemporary consumer is very different to those of the ’60s: they are more sophisticated in how they interpret brand behaviour and generally a lot more marketing-savvy. Let’s make them work a little harder.

Tell me more about how this works – what does the moderator do if they are not moderating?
Their role is still crucial. In the initial stages proceedings are pretty much as normal: the moderator handles the introductions, puts everyone at ease and explains the format for the rest of the discussion. Then, once conversation is flowing, they introduce a précis of the brief and the key objectives, and hand things over to the respondents.

And then what – the moderator just sits back and relaxes?
We prefer the term ‘observes’. But that’s just one scenario. An alternative – and obviously it depends on the nature of the discussion – might be for them to become a respondent. Perhaps they play the role of a target consumer of a brand. We always try to ‘get people out of their heads’ – and that applies to us as researchers as well as our clients and respondents.

But moderation is an art form. It’s a complex skill developed over many years. Don’t you risk undermining that by letting everyone have a go?
We’re not looking to undermine anything. Typically, each respondent moderates for ten minutes in a 90-minute focus group – that’s enough time for them to ask two or three questions each. Then the actual moderator takes charge once more –- they may pick up on some of the points that have been raised, and probe in a little more detail, or they may just summarise.

The benefits of doing this are twofold. First, you are challenging respondents – they can’t just give answers they think you want to hear. And the questions they ask often help pinpoint where specific, and differing, areas of interest lie. This is especially useful in new product development or positioning research. Second, it’s another way of ensuring that all potential angles are explored. We don’t allow repetition of questions so those that moderate last tend to find it especially challenging – they have to revise their questions as the discussion develops.

Is this how you now run all your groups?
No – we only do it when it makes sense. It works best for discussions that are fairly exploratory in nature – NPD and positioning work, and sometimes advertising development too.

And what’s the key to getting it right?
Preparation. You can’t just hand the brief to respondents and tell them to get on with it. Faced with terms like ‘insight platform’ some would laugh, some would cry and some would hit you. They may do all three. So plain language and a simple set-up is the key. It might involve more advance work than for a typical group, but more often than not, it’s worth it.

3 Comments

9 years ago

We've had great success with this approach as well, particularly with online bulletin boards. Most of the current online bulletin board software actually blocks respondents from starting a discussion thread. Artafact's solution allows the moderator to choose whether respondents can start a discussion or not. Those moderators brave enough to try it have loved the results. Works great for new product development! Check us out at http://www.artafact.com

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9 years ago

I love the thinking. It's challenging conventional approaches which in context research would support. The skill of the 'moderator' has always been allowing respondents the opportunity to really participate, and this premise is actually no different. Much akin to the participatory research ideas suggested in #res10. Also, I often wonder about the term 'moderator' ...

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9 years ago

Actually, this technique isn't that far away from early focus groups. Essentially, respondents would be given a list of topics, perhaps 4 or 5 and basically went at it. The moderator's job was to intervene if the discussion went right off track, an argument broke out or if discussion ran dry and needed restarting. The idea was to allow as much freeborn as possible so that top-of-mind surfaces quickly and the group isn't unduly biased by the moderator. Remember also that early focus groups started in the UK where a couple would be recruited, they'd invite over some friends and neighbors, wine would be served and the moderator would sit to the side and take notes.

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