Conducting a focus group (or moderating) is not just about asking questions from a pre-written guide.
Being an insightful moderator – especially in an online focus group – is both a science and an art. The moderator sets the tone and narrative for the research, and is a key asset in unlocking insights.
To dismiss focus group moderation as easy or entry-level is to dismiss the validity of market research as a whole. If your team’s experience is that any stakeholder can moderate, it’s because that stakeholder has developed a skill set to the point of seamlessness.
The most successful moderator is a journalist, psychologist, analyst, and friend; in other words, the best focus group moderators are strong writers, empathetic listeners, data-driven, and thoughtful of the very human behavior and vulnerability that unfolds before them each day. The best moderator, therefore, is one that never tires of discovery.
The strongest, most narrative-driven moderators always follow these four strategies.
4 focus group moderation strategies
Act reliable and empathetic
Know the discussion guide inside and out
Prepare to be the boss (but, in a nice way)
Keep the focus on clients
1. Act relatable and empathetic
One of the main purposes a moderator serves is keeping participants focused. Another primary goal of focus group moderation (especially in a virtual setting) is inspiring a lively discussion. Both of these goals are fulfilled by the moderator’s ability to handle the crowd. Like a good friend, moderators should relate to participants. The more intimate a moderator is willing to be, the more honest participants will be with their responses.
To instigate conversation, imagine that the focus group is a set of friends you haven’t seen in years and must catch up with. Or pretend the group members are the coworkers you quietly exchange information with next to the water cooler. Bring a sense of urgency and excitement to the conversation, and the participants will respond with the same energy and reveal stronger data.
While empathy is a useful skill to hone in market research, the skill is applicable across all professional industries and for all parts of life. Statistically, people who read regularly are more empathetic and understanding of others. If it’s been a while since you picked up a book, flip through the bookshelf collecting dust at home and start reading.
Talk to the engineering team
Relatability requires a degree of self-evaluation. To be vulnerable, a moderator must understand their own biases and flaws, and put them aside to connect with participants. Discuss how to evaluate and be conscious of biases with the company’s engineering team, and pass that information to your own team or inform your own moderation style.
Because it’s a standard practice for developers to be aware of their own biases while designing a product or writing algorithms, they will have recommendations for removing self-interest from research.
2. Know the discussion guide inside and out
In best case scenarios, a moderator will have a chance to write the discussion guide from scratch. This allows for in-depth knowledge both in terms of content and in terms of insider (or client) knowledge. The more access to client processes and roadmap strategies a focus group moderator has, the stronger and more actionable the resulting data will be. And the happier the client.
It’s important that moderators are able to act quickly – and in some cases, act on the consumer insight that artificial intelligence and other technology can provide. Just like a social conversation, focus group discussions can diverge into unexpected territory. Moderators must be flexible, respond quickly to change, and engage organically when unpredicted topics emerge. A moderator’s ability to think on their feet is key to unlocking unique insights that might be inaccessible otherwise.
Related: Feeling uncertain about using high technology like artificial intelligence to help moderate your discussions? Read all about AI to ease your concerns, and learn how useful it is for consumer insight purposes.
Review the AP Style guidelines
The task of studying a discussion guide is much like that of an editor reviewing creative copy. The moderator must investigate key objectives, brainstorm tantalizing interview questions, nurture a narrative, and keep all of their thoughts organized. A moderator’s findings report must be equally comprehensive, but digestible to a general audience and potentially distributable via the company's marketing team.
For all of these purposes, original research should be packaged in AP Style, of which the best moderators will brush up on.
Take a class
Thinking on your feet is a skill that can be developed like a muscle. Take an improv class in your area to flex that ability, and take your entire research team to build a stronger culture of employee engagement (an added bonus!).
3. Prepare to be the boss (but, in a nice way)
Leading a group of people in any capacity is no small task, especially when the group of people are in a vulnerable position - like confessing to their personal habits or revealing sensitive information. While a great leader should be an expert at shepherding a conversation, an excellent moderator should recognize the weight of the responsibility, and treat participants with kindness.
The nature of a group implies that outgoing speakers will be heard most often, and that groupthink might be at play. Some of these issues can be resolved by engaging in an online focus group, where participant responses are anonymous and typed responses can not be missed as soft spoken participants might be.
Still, a disorganized online forum can be potentially more confusing than a crowded room – that’s why the right online focus group platform is essential to a moderator’s leadership strategy and style.
People who are independent by nature are naturally drawn to focus group moderation and market research at large. As a moderator, the job provides a sense of self-fulfillment and natural motivation. Tap into that feeling, and let it fuel your leadership style in conversation.
4. Keep the focus on the clients
The moderator is much like the playmaker for the client experience. While a moderator does not direct research toward the advantage of the client, the moderator should uncover the clearest objectives by probing the client.
Some strategies for deeper understanding of human (and client) thought include asking:
Clients about themselves and their objectives
Attentive follow-up questions
Questions that clients already have top of mind
Questions like a moderator (keep your questions open-ended)
Situational questions using “you” as a focus term
Treat your sales team as trend experts
While a moderator often works closely with a client to understand specific project-related objectives, a company’s sales team is often the expert on overall trends regarding customer concerns and interests. If a client is unclear about research objectives, or if you simply want to deliver extraordinary insights, sales is the nucleus of the client’s mind.
This is just another way to make sure your company’s strategies – from sales to research and development – can maintain a client-centric mindset.
Summing up focus group moderation
The role of the market researcher – and specifically the focus group moderator - is incredibly unique. Because there is a general practice for moderation, it’s easy to forget that the work is not something that can be automated – and the job should never be treated like an afterthought or performed on cruise control.
Are you a market researcher looking for market research software to help you conduct your focus group? See the breakdown of top-performing solutions on G2.