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How to be an effective market research moderator - a balancing act between moderating discussion and leading opinion.

MRFGR’S guide on the best practice for market research moderation.

Moderator (Noun) Someone who makes certain that a formal discussion happens without problems and follows the rules. Before 1950, companies primarily approached market research in one way: they tried to quantify what their customers were doing (now known as quantitative studies) - how many liked this flavour, how many would buy this - but Ernest Dichter had another idea: instead of focusing on what people were saying, we should examine why they’re saying it. Thus, the qualitative research method (as we know it today) began to hit its stride, and with it came the requirement of market research moderators - skillful individuals, capable of mastering the direction of a conversation and bringing a group of independent thinkers into one, easily understood consensus. The truth is that moderating is a skill like no other. It’s finding the balance between bringing a discussion to life, while being careful not to influence the outcome. Dichter called the focus group his ‘living laboratory’ - filled with passions, ideas, and opinions; but how can a moderator direct these into something consumable as market research?

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The Discussion Guide is a tool, not a rulebook.

The discussion guide is the cornerstone of any well-moderated focus group. It acts as a map, charting the topics to be handled and in which order, giving prompts to use if the conversation wanes, and detailing important questions or instructions that need to be put to respondents. A good moderator will follow the discussion guide, but the best will learn from it, adapting mid-session when it becomes necessary to follow the conversation through uncharted waters and discover nuggets of relevant, vital information, that the discussion guide may not have planned for. They should hit all of the required questions and topics, but it’s important to remember that this is a guide, and not a script.

Be a people person

Whether for depth interviews, focus groups, or even online sessions, a market research moderator will need to engage with people. Being natural and comfortable in this setting is an absolute must. Respondents will always echo the moderator’s behaviour in a psychological phenomenon known as mirroring: be withdrawn and approach this like an interrogation, and the participants will remain equally aloof - leaving only shallow, simplistic data that just won’t cut it with the client. It should go without saying that moderators need to be warm, welcoming and unafraid of being human, while still maintaining any professional barriers that make them appealing to market research firms. Simply stating, ‘I can’t believe how warm it is today!’ can be a fantastic icebreaker to demonstrate that the moderator is not just a hired inquisitor, armed to the teeth with questions to deploy.

Knowledge really is power, so the best are informed.

The majority of moderator’s have their area of expertise - consumer research, b2b research, medical research, political research - which they stick to wherever possible. The reason for this is simple: trying to moderate a discussion in an unfamiliar subject area is incredibly difficult. Talking to a panel of business owners on the topic of financial advisors, without actually knowing what a financial advisor is, will leave anybody up a creek without a paddle, unable to build on what respondents are saying, clarify any inaccuracies, or give suitable prompts when an opening rises.

It’s important for moderator’s to be honest about their strengths and weaknesses, and indicate where their skills will be better suited. Moderating in an new area, or in a topic that they’re considerably less informed in, requires thorough research to be on equal footing with the respondents they’re dealing with.

Know the audience

Respondents are generally standard consumers, thus they have no experience of market research, and marketing terms can paint a very complicated picture to newcomers. Language should be adjusted accordingly. A good moderator won’t speak to them about cohorts, market shares, or geodemographics, but instead focus on what they are knowledgeable about - the product, service, website, or subject area - and should tone down the jargon entirely. This shouldn’t feel like a lecture.

Secondly, a modicum of informality is the best practice. It’s important to remember that a focus group is not a classroom, and everyone is there voluntarily, dedicating their free time - no one wants to be brought back to those dim days of chalkboards, stuffy uniforms and strained silence. There’s no harm in sharing in a joke, or using simplistic words like ‘stuff’ (as long as they get the job done) - it only makes for a more welcoming environment, for both the moderator, and the participants. Ignoring this advice is risky, and respondents may clam up for fear of not sounding intelligent enough, or fall into the cathartic plunge of boredom.

Make sense of contradictions

There’s a scene in Season 8 of The Simpsons: six children participate in a focus group to discuss the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. When asked whether the cartoon should deal with real-life, everyday problems, the kids hoot and cheer in agreement, but when questioned over whether the cartoon should instead focus on wacky, crazy storylines, they continue to hoot and cheer. The contradiction makes for a funny moment, but it captures the essence of what happens in all focus groups - respondents contradict themselves. Market research participants are human, which are inevitably fallible beings. Their own perceptions might not form clearly on their tongue, but it’s the moderator’s job to make sense of them, to iron out their opinions into a firm narrative.

Moderators need to constantly digest what respondents are saying and bring them to task on contradictions they’ve made; this way, they can ultimately provide more clarity for the client. They want a cartoon that deals with both everyday, real-life situations, but also crazy, wacky storylines? How do they envision this looking? Do they have any ideas for an episode? Is there a scale as to how crazy they’d like the cartoon to be? A contradiction isn’t a fault in the research, it’s a requirement to look deeper.

Everything means something

During the 1950s, Alfred Goldman held a focus group to learn more about women’s cooking habits. During the session, one respondent made a slip of the tongue and stated that she liked foods that were ‘time-consuming’. A bad moderator wouldn’t process this, would perhaps even willingly ignore it, but this wasn’t just a mistake, it was a freudian-slip which triggered a wave of discussion - the women in the group felt guilty about cooking over-prepared meals.

Critical moments of discussion can be missed by a badly trained moderator. Literally anything a respondent says in a focus group is important, even if it seems to be in careless error. The best moderators are constantly alert and ready to pull at any loose threads that come across their palm.

Dealing with the good, the bad and the ugly.

A good agency will source only the finest people for research - verifiable saints - but this can only happen in an ideal world. Despite any respondent recruitment agencies best efforts, 1-or-2 bad apples can still slip through the net, and thus darken the floor of a market research study with a dud respondent.

It’s not the end of the world. But a good moderator will know how to control it. Here’s our top tips on dealing with a bad respondent:

Engage quiet individuals directly, “And what do you think, Annabelle?”

Make eye-contact with those you wish to engage more, and try to avoid those who are saying too much.

Ask the right questions, but don’t lead the witness.

This is where the 5 Ws come in - when, why, what, who, where? Open-ended questions are key to gathering the right response. Instead of asking whether a respondent likes a particular flavour, it should be rephrased to ask what they think of that flavour instead, and if required, using a quick prompt to garner more detail - why? It’s simply a matter of adjusting how questions are worded. A moderator should always consider whether their question can be answered with a simple yes or no - if it can, it’s time to rethink.

Leading respondents is bad market research, and no moderator worth their salt will do it. It contaminates the outcome and invalidates any answer received, leaving the client with bad data. Positive and negative words should be removed from questions as much as possible, persuasive techniques are to be avoided, and awkward or unclear phrasing is a definite no-go.

In 1974, Loftus and Palmer carried out a study to examine how eyewitness testimony can change as a direct result of leading questions. Forty-five students were gathered to watch seven films of car accidents, before being asked to estimate the speed of the vehicles. Each respondent was asked the same thing, but with one word altered:

“About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed / collided / bumped / hit / contacted) each other?”

They found that respondents were likely to estimate a higher speed for the more aggressive verbs (“smashed”, “collided”), but guess lower when neutral alternatives were used (“bumped”, “contacted”), despite having all watched the same videos.

This demonstrates that phrasing is extremely important when it comes to getting firm responses. Raw opinions are more malleable than people realise, and using the wrong vocabulary could potentially cost your client thousands in badly researched marketing.

There are always exceptions to the rule; if a respondent takes you somewhere first, don’t be afraid to then use more specific questions to dig a little deeper - as long as they have reached those initial conclusions on their own.


Respondent: I find this flavour delicious.

Moderator: Why is it delicious? What makes it so delicious?

Communicate with the client

MRFGR has successfully provided moderation services for numerous research events: focus groups, co-creation workshops, depth interviews, online communities, telephone discussions, informal chats, and we’ve consistently grappled with client’s goals and motivations to deliver firm results. Along the way, communication with the client has been vital.

In the build-up to any research session, moderators need to maintain an open line of communication, listening to what clients want to learn, crafting the discussion guide alongside them, and providing advice on the best way to approach certain subjects. Ultimately understanding what they want to get out of the research is the best way of coming to terms with what needs to be asked, and what doesn’t.

Also, arriving early for a briefing session, and staying later to provide a lasting debrief, can be incredibly useful tools for ensuring your client comes away with the information that they required.


Moderators are a hybrid, a mix of two beings that must run together in perfect pace: spectator and participant, leader and follower, script-reader and improviser. It’s a precarious tightrope to perch upon - they must talk, but not too much, provide focus without narrowing, and remain unbiased, passive, but still give direction. Only the most adept moderators can pull it off, and every project manager needs to consider whether their hired moderator is cut out for the job.

MRFGR have a team of moderators experienced across multiple sectors, including consumer and b2b research, so we’re always ready and competent to handle any research requirements you may have. Have a question about moderation or need help with a project? Perhaps you have some tips and tricks of your own to share? Head over to our contact page and say hi!

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