Moderating Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Group Facilitation


Thomas L. Greenbaum

  • Citations
  • Add to My List
  • Text Size

  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright

    View Copyright Page


    To Rosalie Montag Greenbaum My Wife, Best Friend, and Favorite Person Life With You Has Been a Wonderful Trip… I Look Forward to the Next 30 Years! and To My Brother Allie… Having You Back in the East After All These Years Means More Than You Will Ever Know.


    After completing a comprehensive revision of The Handbook for Focus Group Research, I promised myself this would be my last literary endeavor. It was my fourth book, and the third about focus groups (the other was about the consulting business), and I could not imagine identifying enough new material to warrant another revision of the Handbook. Beyond that, it seemed that I had said all I could about the profession to which I have dedicated the past 5 years of my working life. However, as I have continued to lecture at graduate schools of business, speak at conferences, and write for various magazines, I have come to realize that there is more information about focus groups to be shared with the profession.

    As a result of the contacts I have made through my most recent book, my magazine writing, and the lecturing I have done, it has come to my attention that there has been an increase in inquiries from prospective, new, or even established moderators who want to improve their overall skills as a facilitator of focus groups. Though I have been aware for some time that there are formal courses offered by different organizations to train people to be moderators, the feedback I have received from people who have attended them has not been particularly positive, so I feel there is a real gap between what is available and what people are seeking. Perhaps the courses were good and the students bad, but it was clear to me that these courses were not achieving the objectives that at least some of the participants had for the instruction.

    When I first considered the idea of writing a book on moderating, my initial reaction was that there was not enough material to fill an entire text. Further, I had always felt that moderating focus groups, or any other type of meeting, was something one learned by doing and that it would be extremely difficult to reduce the principles to writing and to create a meaningful text on the topic. Despite this initial reaction, I began to analyze the moderator's role in the qualitative research process, focusing mostly on the focus group methodology because of my personal bias toward that technique. The more I began to dissect this function, the better I began to feel about the possibility of a book. As a result of this analysis, I convinced myself that a great deal could be communicated to a target audience about moderating focus groups that would be useful to almost anyone in the field or others who were considering this as a career.

    The text that follows is a result of this analysis. I hope you will find it to be a helpful guide that will provide the type of information that will make you a better moderator. As I discuss in later chapters of this book, the moderator of the future is someone who will be expected to be a highly competent facilitator but also to offer his or her clients more than simply moderation skills. Perhaps this book will help you to achieve your personal goals as a focus group moderator. I would be very receptive to any feedback about this book, and I encourage you to communicate to me through my Web site (


    Many people have been helpful to me in the development of this book. First and foremost are all the people in the marketing and research industry who have called and e-mailed me to ask about moderator training, as this was my main impetus for writing this book. I hope that it is helpful to all these people.

    I want to express special thanks to my colleague Ella Kelley for all the help she provided to the book from the time I originally worked on the outline to the completion of the final manuscript. Her ideas were always helpful, insightful, and instructive and have resulted in a much more effective book than I would have created without her assistance. She is a very special person, and I am honored to have worked with her for the past 4 years.

    Also I want to acknowledge the contribution of Elaine Shepherd, with whom I have worked closely for 26 years. We have grown old together (although she won't admit to the “old” part), and I have always appreciated the help she has provided, whether working on business or nonbusiness matters. She has typed every word of the five books I have written and is as much a part of these projects as I. For this I am truly appreciative.

    I want to pay a very special tribute to Shelly Parker, who has worked with me as my field director over the past 8 years. She has been helpful to me in many different aspects of this book, including reviewing chapters that were particularly germane to her area of expertise, in addition to giving me the benefit of her very quick mind on various topics in the book about which I was seeking another point of view. I have been blessed with Shelly as a colleague these past years, and I appreciate the contribution she has made to the success of Groups Plus.

    Finally, I want to thank some very special people at various client companies for whom I have worked in recent years. I am sure you know who you are and appreciate why I cannot recognize you individually. However, I feel that we at Groups Plus have been extremely lucky to have had such wonderful clients over the years, as they have made our work interesting, stimulating, fun, and even somewhat profitable. To all of you, I must say thanks!

  • Glossary

    • Anthropomorphization—A moderation technique in which participants describe a product or service in terms of a human being. The objective of this vehicle is to permit the moderator to probe the participants' feelings about the product or service by giving the inanimate object life, personality, and a lifestyle.
    • At-home testing—A procedure in which participants are provided with a product sample to use at home before a group session so that they will be more knowledgeable about it and better prepared to discuss it during the session. The procedure can also be used after a session, when a product sample is provided to participants with the agreement that they will be telephoned to follow up on their reaction to the item.
    • Attitudinal scaling—A moderation technique that focuses on the two most important characteristics of a product or service. Participants are instructed to conceptualize the product or service on a two-dimensional scale, such as price and quality, side effects and efficacy, or speed and cost. This helps the moderator delve deeper into the participants' feelings about the product or service.
    • Audiotaping—The audiotape recording of focus group proceedings. Virtually all group sessions are audiotaped.
    • Back room—The observation room from which client personnel watch and listen to focus group proceedings through a one-way mirror.
    • Bid—The estimate a facility provides to a client or moderator, covering the cost of the group session(s). Normally a bid includes the cost of recruiting, co-op payments, room rental, and food. A moderator's charge for conducting focus groups could also be a bid. The term bid usually involves getting prices from different suppliers for a particular job.
    • Briefing—A meeting in which a client provides a moderator with sufficient background information about a research project so that the moderator can recommend the most appropriate research methodology and, if focus groups are called for, begin to prepare for them. A briefing may be either face-to-face interaction or a telephone conversation.
    • Co-op—The payment provided to participants as an incentive to come to the focus groups. The amount varies dramatically depending on the difficulty of recruiting the participants. This is also called the honorarium, particularly for medical or professional focus groups.
    • Cold call—A selling situation in which the salesperson makes contact with a prospective client without any prior introduction. It can be in the form of a direct mail letter, a broadcast fax or e-mail, or a personal call. Generally, the sales effectiveness of cold calls in service business is very limited.
    • Concept board—A visual aid (external stimuli) used in a focus group to present an idea to the participants so that they can react to it as part of the group discussion. Normally a concept board consists of a brief description of the idea, often presented with a visual in order to make it more realistic to the participants in the group.
    • Concept statement—A brief description of a new product, service or promotion event intended to provide participants in a focus group with sufficient information so that they can make a judgment as to the absolute value of the concept and its most important strengths and limitations.
    • Conceptual mapping—A moderation technique in which participants are asked to place the names of products or services on a grid. How they group the items on the diagram is used to stimulate discussion.
    • Conclusions—The section of the final report that contains the moderator's interpretation of the output from the group sessions in light of the research objectives.
    • Conjoint association—A moderation technique in which participants are asked to choose between two hypothetical products or services, each of which has different attributes. The objective is to stimulate discussion about the various attributes in order to gain insight into the relative value of each.
    • Database—The computerized list of people whom a facility has identified as willing to participate in a session sometime in the future. Normally, a database contains basic demographic data (e.g., age, income, and occupation) and selective product usage information. This enables the facility to recruit qualified persons for focus group sessions relatively easily. The number of people listed varies dramatically, but most facilities in metropolitan areas have over 5,000 names from which they can provide “fresh,” qualified respondents.
    • Demographics—The objective and quantifiable characteristics of consumers by which they are classified into groups. Demographic designators include age, marital status, income, family size, and occupation, among many others.
    • Discussion guide—see Guide.
    • Duplicate number validation—An emerging service in the focus group industry in which the names and telephone numbers of people recruited for groups are submitted to a central screening organization in advance of the groups for the purpose of screening out people who have recently participated in any session or are involved in focus groups more frequently than is desired.
    • Dyad—A qualitative research methodology in which an interviewer works with two participants at once. This technique is particularly appropriate for products and services for which two persons are relatively equal partners in making a purchase decision.
    • Expressive drawing—A moderation technique in which participants are asked to express their reaction to a product or service by drawing a picture.
    • External stimuli—Objects that are introduced into a focus group to generate reactions from the participants. Examples include concept boards, product prototypes, and rough and finished advertising.
    • Facility—The organization in whose physical plant the focus groups are held. The traditional setup is a room with a large conference table that seats 10 people comfortably and an observation room, which are connected to each other by a one-way mirror. A facility also normally provides a variety of services such as recruiting the participants, providing food, procuring competitive product samples, and arranging for the videotaping of the sessions.
    • Field service—Another term for Facility, except that not many field services also do quantitative surveys via telephone.
    • Final report—The document that the moderator develops at the conclusion of focus group sessions. Its length varies, but a typical final report has several sections: a summary of the methodology used in the groups, a review of the key findings, and the conclusions or the moderator's interpretation of what the findings mean in light of the research objectives. Some final reports also have a recommendations section, which contains the moderator's suggestions for the next steps that the client should take based on the conclusions of the research.
    • Findings—The portion of the final report in which the “facts” from the focus groups are summarized. This section is normally organized along the lines of the moderator guide and covers each of the topics identified in it. It does not interpret the information but reports the findings on which the interpretation will be based.
    • Fixed personality association—A projective moderation technique in which participants are shown pictures of people, places, or things and asked to interpret them with regard to the topic. Fixed personality associations use the same pictures over an extended period of time rather than varying them, thus creating “norms” that may apply to a large number of sessions.
    • Focus group—A qualitative market research technique in which a group of 8 to 10 participants of common demographics, attitudes, or purchase patterns are led through a (usually) 2-hour discussion of a particular topic by a trained moderator.
    • Focus Vision—A company headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut that operates a network of focus group facilities offering live remote broadcasting and two-way communication between a facility and a client's office. This service enables client organizations to observe groups in various parts of the country without having to travel.
    • “Fresh” participants—Persons who have never participated in a session previously or have not done so for several years.
    • Full group—A focus group with 8 to 10 participants. A less than full group is normally referred to as a mini-group.
    • Global focus—Focus groups conducted using satellite video technology in which participants are located in different places, normally in different countries.
    • Grid—A graphic provided to focus group participants in conceptual mapping and attitudinal scaling exercises.
    • Group dynamics—The impact of participants' inputs on one another in a focus group discussion. An effective moderator, using group dynamics techniques, can promote helpful discussion and also minimize the potentially negative effects of group dynamics.
    • GroupNet—A trade name for the Video Conferencing Alliance Network, which is a group of field services that offers videoconferencing of focus groups.
    • Guide—The outline that the moderator uses to lead the discussion in the focus group session. It is also called the moderator guide. It is developed by the moderator on the basis of the briefing and identifies the topics that will be covered in a focus group session and the approximate emphasis given to each. This is the primary way the moderator communicates with the client organization about the anticipated content of the focus group session.
    • Homogeneous groups—Focus groups in which the participants have extremely similar characteristics.
    • Honorarium—The co-op payment provided to focus group participants. The term honorarium is most frequently used when the participants are professionals, such as physicians, lawyers, and architects.
    • Host/hostess—The individual (male or female) responsible for greeting the participants as they arrive at the facility and for preparing the room. Responsibilities include providing food for the participants and the client observers, rescreening respondents when they arrive, and preparing name tags.
    • In-house recruiting—The recruiting of participants by telephone solicitations from people physically located within the focus group facility. Most moderators prefer in-house recruiting because it allows them more control over the recruiting process.
    • Incentive—The co-op payment to participants for coming to a focus group.
    • Incidence—The percentage of people in a population who qualify for a focus group, based on the specifications that have been developed. The higher the incidence, the less expensive it is to recruit participants for a focus group.
    • Intercept—A recruitment method in which an interviewer stops (or “intercepts”) people in a mall or other public location and asks them a brief series of screening questions.
    • Intro board—This is a visual aid used in the beginning of a focus group to help with the introduction of the participants to each other, the moderator, and the client observers in the back room. Normally, it provides direction to the participants to provide information such as their first name, family composition, and occupation. An example of an intro board is provided in Figure G.1.

      Figure G.1. A Sample Intro Board

    • Laddering—A probing technique, used in one-on-ones and focus groups, designed to delve into the “real” reasons for participants' behavior and attitudes toward the topic. It is generally considered an intensive technique, as it probes in-depth each topic that is discussed in such a way as to try to get to the underlying reason for the attitude or behavior. The moderator seeks the reason behind each answer until he or she arrives at a basic human need such as ego or status.
    • Lists—Names of customers, former customers, suppliers, or industry influentials that clients sometimes provide to interviewers, from which participants are to be recruited for focus groups.
    • Mall intercept—see Intercept.
    • Methodology—The section of the final report in which the moderator outlines the approach used in the research, including the method of recruiting participants, the location of the groups and the external stimuli used. Methodology can also mean the approach that a moderator uses to conduct the sessions.
    • Mini-group—A focus group that contains four to six participants. More than six is normally considered a “full group,” and fewer than four is a triad or a dyad.
    • Mixed group—A focus group that contains both males and females. Most moderators prefer to work with groups that are not mixed.
    • Moderator guide—see Guide.
    • No-show—A focus group participant who agrees to come to a session and is confirmed the same day but nonetheless does not come to the group. Facilities attempt to compensate for the problem caused by no-shows by overrecruiting for the group by two or three people per session.
    • Notes—The summary information that observers develop during focus groups. Normally, notes are only their most important comments written in a shorthand format.
    • Observation room—see Back room.
    • One-on-one—A qualitative research technique in which a moderator interviews one participant, normally for 30 to 60 minutes. Often this is conducted in a room with a one-way mirror so the client can observe the proceedings.
    • Overrecruiting—Selecting the extra people for a focus group to compensate for the inevitable “no-shows.”
    • Participant—A person who takes part in a focus group.
    • People board—A moderation technique in the class of fixed personality associations, developed by Tom Greenbaum. Participants are exposed to a permanent display of photographs of people of various ages, socioeconomic levels, and ethnic groups that enables the moderator to delve further into the thoughts and feelings of the participants about the topic being discussed. The advantage of this fixed personality association over variable personality associations is that norms of participants' reactions to each image are established over time, thereby helping the moderator to interpret participants' reactions and indicating areas to probe during the discussions.
    • “Professional” respondent—A participant who attends many sessions by volunteering for the recruitment lists of different facilities. Most moderators seek to eliminate “professional” respondents from groups because they do not generally respond in the same objective way that “fresh” respondents do but try to anticipate what they think moderators want to hear.
    • Projectability—The capacity of research results to be extrapolated to the larger universe on the assumption that the sample is representative of the total. Focus groups are sometimes criticized because, as a qualitative methodology, their results are not projectable due to the small samples involved and the selectiveness of participant recruitment.
    • Projective—A class of moderation techniques used to stimulate discussion among participants. These techniques force the participants to think about the topic in a more subjective or creative way than they might in a “normal” discussion. Projectives include sentence completion, expressive drawing, anthropomorphization, and associations.
    • Qualitative research—Research whose objective is to gain insight into attitudes and feelings, not to develop numerical data that maybe projectable to a larger universe. Qualitative methodologies include focus groups, mini-groups, and one-on-ones.
    • Quantitative research—Research designed to generate projectable numerical data about a topic. Quantitative studies are conducted by telephone, mail, or personal interviews.
    • Quota—A minimum number of focus group participants who must meet certain criteria. A moderator might set a quota of having half of the group be users of Brand X or one third be aware of Product Y.
    • Random selection—A selection process in which everyone has an equal chance of being chosen for participation. Random recruiting is the ideal for respondents for both qualitative and quantitative studies. But due to cost considerations, only a small percentage of all quantitative research conducted uses purely random sampling. For focus group sessions, recruitment is almost never random.
    • Rating—A technique used in focus groups aimed primarily at identifying the overall attitudes of the participants toward a specific topic. Each individual is asked to rate the idea on a 10-point scale, and the moderator uses that information to identify the variation in attitudes among the participants. This is a key stimulus to the discussion that follows, as the moderator tends to focus on those people who are at either end of the scale in order to identify why some were very positive and others negative about the idea.
    • Ranking—A process used in focus groups in which participants are asked to determine the relative value of a list of attributes or characteristics so that they can easily be discussed in the group. Normally, a moderator might ask the group to circle about 20% of the list they are provided to be indicative of the most important elements. Then, by reviewing the full list with the group and focusing only on the ones that are identified as most important, the moderator can obtain relatively easily a relative ranking of the various items that will be discussed.
    • Recommendations—The section of the final report that suggests the next action steps a client could take, based on the conclusions of the research.
    • Recruiter—see Interviewer.
    • Recruitment—The process of securing participants for focus groups.
    • Release form—The form that some clients and facilities ask participants to sign to release them from all responsibility for any consequences of the groups, especially when participants must taste food, alcohol, or tobacco products.
    • Rescreening—A brief interview conducted with potential participants when they arrive at a facility to ensure that they really qualify for the session. Rescreening normally uses some of the questions that were asked when the participants were originally recruited.
    • Respondent—see Participant.
    • Sample—The participants in a focus group as research subjects.
    • Screener—The questionnaire used to recruit participants. Most moderators review the screener before a session to become familiar with the participant types and to ensure that the recruitment has been correct.
    • Sentence completion—A moderation technique in which participants are asked to finish a sentence that has been started for them. The purpose of this technique is to enable participants to delve into certain areas that they may otherwise find difficult to discuss.
    • Significant influencer—An individual who does not have the final decision-making power in an organization but does have sufficient influence on those who do, so that he or she becomes a more important person to talk with than the ultimate decision maker. Normally, the significant influencer will be much more familiar with the topic area than the decision maker.
    • Sign-out sheet—A control document used by a facility to keep track of co-op payments to participants.
    • Specifications—The criteria for participants in a focus group, involving their demographic characteristics, product usage, product awareness, and so on.
    • Spreadsheets—Summary charts that are normally produced by the organization doing the recruiting for a focus group to show the most important information about each of the participants. They normally include the name and the answers given to the two to four most important questions used in the recruiting process.
    • Syndicated research—Research conducted on behalf of two or more clients, who share the costs.
    • Target consumers—The type of people who are to participate in a focus group. See Specifications.
    • Telephone group—A qualitative research methodology in which 7 to 10 people are connected in a telephone conference call and a trained moderator leads them through a discussion about a particular topic. Telephone groups are typically used with people who normally would not communicate with each other due to competitive conflicts but who will participate in an anonymous telephone discussion.
    • Triad—A qualitative research methodology in which a moderator works with three respondents. Some researchers maintain that the limited number of participants in a triad permits the moderator to get more information from them than is possible in a mini-group or full group.
    • Value added—The extra value a moderator brings to a client by virtue of his or her previous training or experience.
    • Variable personality association—A moderator technique in which photographs are selected for a particular focus group to secure participants' reactions to a particular topic that they represent. The “variable” aspect of this technique is that the photos are tailored to the group rather than fixed, as in the people board.
    • Verbatim—A transcript of the actual comments participants make in a focus group. Many moderators include verbatims in their final reports to support their interpretation of the findings.
    • Video focus groups—see Global focus.
    • Viewing room—see Back room.
    • Warm-up—The initial period of a focus group, when the moderator begins the group discussion. The intent of this 10- to 20-minute segment is to get the participants comfortable talking in the group, while at the same time gathering the most general information about the topic area to be covered in the groups.
    • Web site—A place on the World Wide Web where a company or an individual can store information for others to access. It is an excellent way to make information available about your service to others, who might find it via an Internet search or as a result of a direct inquiry to learn more about your company.
    • Write-down—The process of having participants write down their views on a topic during a focus group. Moderators use write-downs to get participants to commit to their own point of view before other participants can influence them.

    About the Author

    Thomas L. Greenbaum is President of Groups Plus, a focus group and consulting company in Wilton, Connecticut. In addition to writing and lecturing, he moderates more than 150 focus groups a year. He is currently an adjunct professor of marketing at the Leonard Stern School of Business (NYU), where he teaches a course in marketing research, with a heavy orientation toward focus group research.

    • Loading...
Back to Top

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website