What Does It Take to Be a Great Focus Group Moderator?

  • Darshan Mehta
  • October 14, 2017

Imagine you’re going on a first date. What’s the conversation like?

Most dates start with the basics. What do you do for a living? How many siblings do you have? Do you have any pets? If the date goes well, you should soon get to deeper lines of conversation, perhaps asking thoughtful follow-ups or exchanging personal stories.

The moderator in a focus group is similar to someone on a first date. Much like a hopeful date, a moderator should be listening intently to participants and trying to push past surface-level responses to deeper, more personal thoughts. A good moderator, like a good first date, covers the important points but spends most of the time learning from people in the focus group.

Personality Quiz: Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Moderator?

Before you jump straight into moderating your own focus group, think about whether you really want to go on that many first dates at once.

First, carefully consider whether you’re even the right person for the job of moderator. If you’re invested in the product, brand, or marketing initiative, it might be hard to listen objectively. That’s why it’s sometimes more effective to choose a third-party moderator. Even if you’re asking objective, thoughtful questions, it’s smart to get an outside opinion from someone who may look at the focus group from a different perspective.

The best moderators also have important personality traits in common. Successfully moderating a focus group takes someone who is thoughtful and a great listener, and they have to be truly, genuinely interested in what the group has to say. At the same time, they should be able to multitask, typing responses while still listening and thinking about follow-up questions.

If your personality doesn’t quite align with these traits, fear not! There are plenty of ways to improve your moderating skills.

Take Your Moderating Game to the Next Level

Even if you still have room for improvement in the moderating game (realistically, everyone has room for improvement), there are steps you can take that go a long way:

1. Prepare for the Main Event

Most people prepare for a first date, and you should be doing the same before tackling a focus group. Take a moderator training course beforehand to get experience and learn the basics of how to conduct the group. Don’t worry — you don’t need to enroll in college to get your moderator degree. Even doing something as simple as reading up on your subject will be helpful before the big event.

Reading up and taking courses will also help you practice extracting what you want from the focus group. As simple as it sounds, one of the keys to focus group success is determining what you need to know. By studying beforehand, you can go into your session with a list of objectives so you’re sure you’ll get the information you need.

2. Set Relationship Expectations Upfront

Every focus group will come with a mix of personalities. Part of your job as moderator is to make sure reserved members participate and outgoing participants don’t dominate. Although online focus groups prevent people from talking over one another, kick things off by letting participants know you value in-depth responses from everyone on all questions.

Again, think of it like dating. If your date is shy, asking a few warm-up questions to get the ball rolling will help her feel more comfortable before you start the deeper conversations. And if your date is extra talkative, you’ll need to help her express herself without dominating the conversation.

3. Be an Active Listener

Listening is a lot tougher than it looks. The trick to moderating is making each individual feel like he or she is valued and heard. This doesn’t mean you have to repeat back all the participant responses to each question, though. It means you should pull in information from previous questions, listen carefully for answers you can build new questions upon, and create a discussion that extracts useful information from every participant — not just a few.

4. Make Learning a Key Objective

Why are you conducting a focus group? What information do you hope to learn from participants? What questions can you ask to obtain that information? You can’t expect to learn much if you don’t know what you want to learn in the first place.

Coming up with questions is only half the battle, though. A focus group is a conversation, so keep it conversational. Don’t drill participants with question after question — toss a question their way, sit back and really listen to their answers, and guide the conversation based on what they say.

A well-conducted focus group results in the information you need and a positive feeling of contribution for participants. Dating and focus groups don’t always go smoothly. If your first one doesn’t go as expected, remember there are other fish in the sea. Change your strategy, freshen up your approach, and go out to try again.

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