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FEATURE1 November 2003

Moderator problems

Peter Totman asks whether moderators are 'performing' too much for clients.

Many moderators would agree that groups conducted in viewing facilities are pale and superficial compared to those conducted in more traditional venues. Whilst this can be partly attributed to limitations imposed by professional respondents in a goldfish bowl environment, I would argue that it is the effect of the viewing facility on the moderator that is decisive.

The less God-like researchers amongst us cannot help but to try and produce smooth 'performances' never forgetting for a moment that we are strutting up on the stage. We insist our respondents forget about the audience, but never do ourselves.

Homogeneity tends to be the result. The viewed moderator is one that is terminally risk-adverse. For example, how many moderators are going to pursue the cryptic comment from the introverted guy in the corner when the other respondents are all chatting so nicely and on-topic? Especially when they know that if they do follow his esoteric train of thought it is just as likely to lead to a dead end than an epiphany? Nor do 8 inches of glass always protects the moderator form the theatrical sighs of impatient that European marketing directors tend to give! As moderators, we believe that all but the most sophisticated of clients will equate chatty and fluent groups with good moderation, irrespective of where it takes the thinking. As viewing facilities proliferate there is an increasing danger that the great British group discussion is slowly turning into the American focus group i.e. a vehicle for immediate management decision, not consumer exploration. Before we know it, the debrief will be just a documentation exercise, not a forum for genuine debate. The decision will have been made whilst the researcher's back was turned.

Not only is moderator performance affected during the group itself. There is also the post-group debrief to consider, with the client expecting words of wisdom from a researcher whose mind is full of unprocessed data and who is too tired to string a meaningful sentence together. How many less experienced researchers have uttered some banality that subsequently comes back to haunt them at the debrief? More experienced researchers are better able to cope with these sticky moment with a timely, and vaguely pompous reference to due process.

Viewing facilities are a fact of life and it is probably true that some research is commissioned just so it can be observed. During hard times such as these, all revenue is welcome and one is much readier to fight for a principle on a full stomach. For those of us disinclined to grand gestures and who blanch at the sight of a project sacrificed on the altar of research purity, there are pragmatic alternatives. Work with client-side market research professionals who understand that we need to balance the integrity of the project with their desire for authentic access to their consumers is important. In practice, this tends to lead to an agreement to limiting the number of facility groups to no more than half of the fieldwork. Revolutionary? – not in the UK but American clients see it as really quite radical! This whole subject seems to be one researchers talk about between themselves, but often not to clients. I suppose it seems like admitting to vulnerability and, ironically, that takes experience and confidence.

Ironic too, how much energy is spent debating every nuance of consumer psychology, but when it comes to ourselves there is an unstated assumption that we are entirely rational beings. It is as if through virtue of our role as arbiters and interpreters of human psychology we place ourselves above standard human needs and frailties.

Peter Totman is managing partner of Canvas

November | 2003