Focus Group Backroom Management: Tips for Moderators


Several years ago, Innovation Focus was conducting focus groups with a client team from a ladies’ clothing catalog. The lead client arrived in the back room just in time for the respondents to be ushered into their seats.  She immediately sent for the moderator.

“These are not our clients!”, she exploded.

“Why do you think that?”, responded the moderator, trying to retain her decorum and stick to the facts.

“These women are all sizes 12 to 16.”

“Well,” said the moderator, “they were all screened and approved.”

The client team leader stormed out.  The moderator followed and a conversation ensued about the possibility that aspirational motivations, the desire to look like the models in the company’s catalog, was a key emotional driver for the choices these women had made to purchase the company’s offerings.  The client leader calmed down.  Realizing that she was facing her own assumptions, she returned to the back room to really listen and learn about her company’s clients.   The moderator went back into the front room to begin the focus group discussion.

This true story is a reminder for moderators that when it’s time for your focus groups, make sure you are prepared for not only managing the discussion guide and respondents in the front room but for also managing the team in the back room.

When a moderator must juggle the competing worlds of two very different groups: the front room respondents and the team in the back room, here are some tips for managing the back room.

About 15 minutes before the start of the focus group prepare the back room participants with a briefing.  Communicate that there are some ‘Rules of the Road’ for the Back Room.  These include:

  • Remind the team to keep an open mind and suspend judgement in the interests of really learning from the respondents.
  • Recommend the use of a Post-it® note pad for the back room to contribute any probing questions for the moderator to add to the front room discussion (and to please make sure to write them legibly).
  • Ask them to designate one person to discreetly bring these probes to the moderator.
  • Remind them to be patient as the moderator works these probes as seamlessly as possible into the discussion.
  • Alert them also that for the success of the front room interaction the moderator may skip around in the discussion guide but that all topics will be covered.
  • Introduce the responsibility for recording what they are hearing and seeing.
  • Emphasize that notes must represent what they are actually seeing and hearing, because it is an all-too-human response to record just what one recognizes and wants to hear.  Make notes that record verbatims or as close as possible to what respondents are saying.  Recording personal insights and comments stimulated by respondents’ discussion is also important and these need to be identified as such.  Do this by dividing note-taking paper into two columns – one side for verbatims and the other side for insights and comments stimulated by the verbatims.  Remind the back room team that this will help them listen with fresh ears and observe with fresh eyes (helping to control for bias and assumption).
  • Finally and most importantly leave the back room participants with the request to listen and observe with unconditional positive regard for all respondents.

All this is designed to maintain decorum and focus in the back room and to enable the session to be as productive as possible for the client.  Once the backroom team is briefed all should go forward smoothly.

Note:  Moderators can add value to focus groups by building in 30 – 45 minutes of debriefing time with the back room team after each group.  At this time, team members can use their notes to contribute to verbatim-based insights and learnings.

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