This article appeared in Product Management Today, March1997

Getting the Most From Focus Group Moderators

by Tom Greenbaum

The U.S. Army has popularized the theme "Be All You Can Be" in its efforts to recruit people into the military. The message behind this slogan is also appropriate for the focus groups pharmaceutical companies employ to evaluate the reactions of both physicians and consumers to their products. Focus groups are the most commonly used type of research in the pharmaceutical industry because they provide quick, in-depth inputs about products and services that will assist the product management team in developing product and marketing plans.

Keys To A Good Working Relationship

It is widely recognized that the most important ingredient in the focus group process is the moderator who must ensure that the methodology employed in the research effort will achieve the study objectives. Unfortunately, some client organizations do not give their moderators a chance to be all they can be, therefore compromising the moderator's ability to deliver the best possible end result. The following suggestions for users of focus group research should help them get the maximum benefit from the moderators they retain.

Have Faith in the Moderator. Pharmaceutical companies must take special care to hire moderators whom they trust and believe will do an excellent job on the assignment. When planning a project, the client organization should take advantage of the moderator's expertise and experience in qualitative research. For example, the client must utilize the moderator to help think through and develop the various "external stimuli," which are used during the focus group process to expose ideas to the participants. An experienced moderator can look at a concept statement and know that it will be understood, thus ensuring that it has all the necessary information to help work with the participants. Unfortunately, clients do not often solicit, or want, the input of moderators. Thus, they approach the focus groups with poorly conceived concepts, and then wonder why the participants could not relate to the ideas presented in the group.

Whereas it is necessary to provide the moderator with input to develop the discussion guide, the pharmaceutical company must also trust the moderator to be able to lead the groups in the most effective manner possible, using a variety of exercises to stimulate the maximum quality feedback from them. Often, clients will try to steer the direction of the discussion. However, if the moderator is permitted to lead the group in the way he or she feels is most appropriate, a better outcome will almost always result because of the moderator's experience in both leading the groups and completing established project objectives successfully.

During the discussion, the moderator should be trusted to follow the topics in the guide, and to sense when to probe further into specific areas. Many focus group observers concentrate more on trying to control the moderator's questioning process (by sending notes into the room) than on the content of the groups. To this end, it is advisable for the client and moderator to discuss the direction of the focus group only two to four times throughout the session. These interruptions are minimal and less distracting. They can provide the necessary interaction between the client and moderator to ensure that new avenues can be explored and probed.

Be Prepared. The pharmaceutical company and the focus group moderator should work together to ensure that the discussion guide and any project materials to be used during the focus group are completed at least a day before the sessions will be conducted. Although an experienced moderator can adjust to most situations, it is detrimental to the focus group's goals for clients to give the moderator significant new input just a few minutes before a group begins. A good moderator will internalize the content of a group in order to identify the most effective way to introduce the information. This becomes a very difficult task if the client wants the moderator to incorporate new input at the last moment before the discussion begins.

Representatives of the pharmaceutical company should arrive well before the focus group is scheduled to begin. This will allow the moderator to go over last minute details and conduct a proper pregroup briefing. Most moderators find it helpful to review some elements of the discussion guide once more, immediately before the group begins. This review guarantees that both client and moderator are in agreement on the outline's emphasis. Similarly, many moderators like to conduct short pregroup briefings to inform the group as to the following: how the participants are recruited; who was involved in the development of the guide and other materials; and what process the moderator will use to communicate with the back room observers during the sessions. Finally, by arriving well before the session is scheduled to begin, it is unlikely that the arriving clients and participants will run into each other.

Respect the Moderator's Conclusions. When the focus group has concluded, the pharmaceutical company should not influence the moderator's conclusions and recommendations. A primary benefit of hiring an outside moderator is to gain an objective view from a person who only seeks to provide the most professional analysis of the research. Although it is always easier to provide clients with favorable findings, the moderators are less concerned with the client's reaction than with the accuracy of their own interpretations and the quality of their conclusions and recommendations.

Spotlight the Moderator's Report. It is essential to expose the moderator's report to the organization instead of writing an internal summary that uses the report as mere input. Whereas there is nothing wrong with client observers writing their own analysis of the groups, the pharmaceutical company management deserves to be exposed to the moderator's thinking, even if it is accompanied by a cover note from the client contact individual that details the company's agreement and disagreement with the moderator.


The moderator can be a valuable resource to a client focus group process if the organization implementing the study will permit the moderator to leverage his or her experience to the benefit of the research study. This input from the moderator during the planning, implementation, and analysis phase of the project can be the key added value that separates the qualified moderators from the rest of the pack. If a moderator is not able to provide the pharmaceutical company with more than the described responsibilities, it would be advisable to seriously consider other professionals to work in this position.

As the 21st Century approaches, organizations will demand more from focus group moderators in terms of the total contribution they make to the overall marketing process. By following the guidelines in this article, pharmaceutical companies should be well positioned to get the maximum out of both the moderator and future research.

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