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The Myth of the “Matching” Focus Group Moderator

June 8, 2010

But don’t we need a (fill in the blanks) moderator?  How often do you hear that question?  Sometimes, a well-meaning client will request that the moderator  have the same background or orientation as the respondents.  African Americans, Gays, Zebras…you name it.  The stated concern is that respondents won’t feel as comfortable with an “outsider,” one with whom they can’t identify.

Moderator Identification.  Is It Always Good? Listening, really listening includes empathy , attending to verbal and nonverbal cues, and a heightened sense of awareness.  From that comes identification based on the human condition, or a shared experience. Feeling connected to the moderator may make respondents feel “safe.” But…

  • Identification is a double-edged sword. If the moderator and respondents are strongly attuned to each other, isn’t there a risk of the moderator “understanding” a respondent only too well?  An “outsider” may just be clueless enough to ask about the obvious.  That in turn could lead to a fresh perspective.
  • As for respondents themselves, what respondent (or anyone) wouldn’t appreciate a genuine show of interest from anyone who wanted to know more about him or her?

More often than not, the skill of the moderator is more important than the “group” they presumably belong to.  Here’s why:

It’s The Focus Group Moderator’s Role. Moderators are trained to be objective.  Not only do they set the stage for respondents, making them feel relaxed, open, and respected – a good moderator acts as if she or he knows nothing about the topic at hand. The respondents are the experts.

Ethnicities and Minorities are People First. The bigger picture is that people are often more alike than different when it comes to basic needs and wants. For example, in qualitative research among African American and white denture wearers, the findings were identical:

  • Dentures wearers across the board feared above all the social embarrassment of wearing dentures (e.g. exposure as denture wearers, having dentures fall out, denture breath, etc.)  They were most drawn by advertising that addressed those fears.
  • And that was true whether ads showed African-Americans, whites, or both.  So, a common and universal emotion, fear, was more motivating than race in marketing the product.

Highly Sensitive Topics and Other Issues. There are exceptions.  You can’t interview someone in English who doesn’t speak it, for example.  And some topics are so sensitive that respondents need a moderator they feel safest with (e.g., a sensitive gender-related topic).

That said, even the best moderators may be asked to step aside simply because it’s assumed they can’t relate to a particular ethnic or minority group. In that case:

  • Consider suggesting mixed groups over segmented groups. If necessary, conduct separate ethnic or minority groups and compare results with those of the mixed groups.
  • Consider co-moderating with someone whose background or orientation is more directly related to a particular group. The outside moderator may even enhance the discussion, if respondents are encouraged  to help the outsider understand.

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