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Lessons Learned by Leading 6000 Focus Groups in 40 Years [Part Two]

Posted on October 8, 2021 by Riva Market Research Training Institute

This is a continuation of last week’s blog “Lessons Learned from 6000 Focus Groups in 40 Years,” with Lessons 5 & 6.

Lesson # 5:  Laugh early – it will all be funny later, became clear to me as a lesson shortly after my first disastrous group ended. I came home, in a ruined silk shirt I had sweated out, and swollen feet from pinched high heels shoes and my husband said: “You look terrible.”

As I began my long tale of how the evening had gone, he started to laugh and he couldn’t stop laughing when I talked about how respondents had taken over the session and ran their own agenda, how the client slipped me notes under the door in handwriting I could not read and on and on. 

Now, I tell myself: “Laugh early – it will all be funny later” whenever the going gets tough.  Some quick moments of “laughing on the inside” since I started qualitative research in 1981:

  • Winning a lowest bidder award because I made an 8K mistake in addition when providing estimated project costs via line items
  • Leaving my only copy of the guide in the pocket of the airline seat on the plane ride to Jacksonville, 2 hours before the group start time and no client coming to observe with an extra copy I could borrow, and no access to the RIVA server because no wi-fi existed in the recreational center where the group met
  • Throwing up in the hallway wastebasket, outside the focus group room, because of food poisoning and rinsing my mouth with hand soap from the bathroom where I went dump the wastebasket
  • Hallucinating while moderating because my temperature reached  104 degrees and I couldn’t find a replacement moderator to sit in for me. By holding my finger on the number of the next question to ask, I moved through the guide and did not remember a single answer from respondents.
  • Saying G*D%&* in a focus group with nuns when I dropped a book on my sore toe
  • Losing a 47-page report when I failed to back up a disk on the hard drive.

I might not have laughed when each of the above occurred, but have laughed often when recounting the circumstances of each one.

Lesson # 6: Expect and embrace change keeps me balanced and centered.  This lesson goes along with the lessons of not being rigid and honors the lesson of the willow tree that bends with the wind instead of breaking.  

When I call my Research Director for project updates, I’ve learned to start by asking, “What’s changed?” since I know that will be a key factor in our discussions.

I know these truths by having lived them:

a. Ad agencies are changing stimuli right up to the first group and that the copy I had at moderator guide development is probably not going to be what I’m actually testing in the room.  

b. The specs we worked on for the government project screener may not play out 100% in the humans who show up.

c. The study purpose may shift from direction A to direction B due to internal issues over the life of the project.

d. The client may forget the audio tape of the commercial and ask me to sing the jingle for the storyboard shown to respondents.

e. In general, I know that my picture of how the project should go and how it actually goes could be as different as a Polaroid and a photograph that wins the best picture of the year.  

By expecting and embracing change, I keep my blood pressure lower and my upsets to a minimum.

A final bonus lesson: There have been true moments of levity in my work as a moderator across the years and the final lesson to report here is “remember that working with people in qualitative sessions is really a window into the lives of people very different than me.”  A short list of highlights of laugher across 6,000 focus groups:

  • Hiding a smile when a young man said he didn’t worry about STDs because he practiced mahogany. [He did not know how to say monogamy.]
  • Faking a cough, when the housewife said she didn’t like genetic brands [mistakenly said for generic brands].
  • Suppressing laughter, while dropping my pen under the table, when a young woman with a smooth, totally bald head [hair loss due to coloring and relaxing her hair in the same treatment], swore her hair began to grow back due to the use of the client’s mousse.
  • Pretending to cough when the transvestite in the IDI said the one key reason, he liked control top pantyhose: “It holds up my stuff.”
  • Leaving the client’s meeting room quickly with a coughing fit, when the new hire on the client team said: “Oh, I thought the moderator took the mirror with them when they traveled.”
  • Laughing out loud when a client observer fell through the one-way mirror because he tripped and the teen respondents said: “Wow, lot of people behind that mirror.”
  • Pretending to sneeze when a seven-year-old said “Ex-Lax – that’s Jewish Chocolate” when asked to name some of the medicines used at his house when shown a tray of items that included Exlax, Aspirin, and Sudafed.

I have learned it is a privilege to be able to pull aside the curtains of someone’s life and walk in their shoes for the short journey of our time together in a focus group. It is humbling to stand in support with someone expressing loss, tragedy, and anger at how life can be unfair, without succumbing to pity. It is an honor to laugh in the face of death when the final breath is less than six weeks away as a respondent reclines in a bed in a hospice and talks about the “road not traveled” and then cracks a joke about a two for one deal on coffins since she and her hospice roommate are destined to die about the same time.

I believe that wisdom is the residue of what is learned from life’s lessons. This essay provides some wisdom learned from leading 6000 focus groups over the past 40 years.

Written by: Naomi Henderson, CEO & Co-Founder