This is the text as it appeared in Quirk's Marketing Research Review, December 1995 issue.

Making It Work for You Behind the One-Way Mirror

By Tom Greenbaum

Editor's note: Tom Greenbaum is President of Groups Plus

With the growing popularity of focus group research, there is increased pressure for organizations using the technique to get the most possible out of each session. There has been a great deal written recently about new and different techniques of moderating groups, and also quite a bit about the importance of doing adequate planning before a series of groups to ensure that the proper efforts have been made relative to recruiting, discussion guide development and creating the most effective stimuli to show to the participants during the sessions.

However, one overlooked area is the dynamics of the backroom, and what each of the people attending a focus group should do to ensure that they get the maximum out of each session. The following is a series of suggestions that will enable you to get more information and better insights out of each focus group you attend.

First, be totally familiar with the discussion guide before the groups begin. This will show you the specific types of information the moderator is after and the relative emphasis that will be placed on each before the discussion begins. As a result, you can concentrate on the discussion in front of the mirror rather than looking at your copy of the discussion guide to figure out whether the moderator will be covering some topic of interest to you later on in the session.

Second, be sure you have decided how to communicate with the moderator during the group session. There are many ways to do this, and different moderators have preferences as to what works best for them. For example, many moderators would prefer to come to the backroom during a group, to talk with the observers, as they find this less distracting than receiving notes during the session. The important thing is that the clients get a chance to talk with the moderator a few times during the session to share ideas about the inputs from the participants and to suggest new topics or new ways to approach a subject.

Third, before the group starts, write down the three to five most important things you would like to learn from the participants. Then while the group is in progress, make sure the moderator is adequately covering these topics. Take one page for each topic and jot down thoughts and feelings that emerge from the groups about each topic as they are mentioned by the participants.

Fourth, make sure it's quiet in the backroom during the group. It's difficult to concentrate on the conversations in front of the mirror if there is talking or laughing in the observation room.

Fifth, discipline yourself to focus on the big picture rather than the comments of the minority during the discussion. Don't listen only to the one or two people who are the most dominant, the most positive or the most negative about the subject being discussed. It is very easy to walk away from a group with a false sense of the group feeling due to the aggressive behavior of one or two participants. The best way to focus on the inputs from the full group is to jot down brief notes on the comments made regarding a particular topic by each of the participants.

Sixth, focus on the macro rather than the micro issues raised during the group. This is one reason we suggest making a list of what you hope to learn from the group before the session begins. To help you focus on the bigger issues, refer to this list during the session to ensure that the moderator is addressing the important topics rather than letting the discussion get sidetracked

Seventh, at the conclusion of each focus group, write a brief summary statement for yourself which indicates the following three thoughts:

  • The most important things you learned during the group.
  • Things you did not learn which you need to get from subsequent sessions.
  • Suggestions for changes in the discussion guide relative to future focus group sessions which will result in more helpful inputs.

    If each of the backroom observers would take five minutes to do this at the end of each group session, it would dramatically improve the cumulative value of the focus groups.

    Finally, ensure that the moderator conducts a brief postmortem after each group and a more in-depth one after each day's sessions. The post-group debriefing is important to ensure that there is good communication between the backroom observers and the moderator on the quality and nature of the content the session generated. Also, talk to the moderator before the next session begins about any changes to the guide that seem warranted.

    In summary, the backroom observers in a focus group session can dramatically increase the quality of the information they get from focus group sessions by following the simple guidelines outlined above. The net result will be more productive focus groups for your company.

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