Qualitative by the Numbers: Blog Ten – 10 Best Practices for Vested Moderators
There are situations when a company or organization uses an employee to conduct qualitative research events (QREs). These might include focus groups, in-home interviews, dyads, or any of a myriad number of research methodologies to help understand the perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes (POBAs) of varied target markets.
In other situations, a company may choose to hire a freelance moderator, who can be a sole practitioner, or an employee of a market research firm or consulting agency.
Many factors impact the decision to use a staff member or a vendor for QREs and this blog addresses the impact of either choice.
What Does “Vested” Mean?
Suppose a dog food manufacturer decides they want to conduct research with current dog owners who traditionally buy fifty-pound bags of dog food to feed their dogs. The study purpose is to explore perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes about new coupon and rebate ideas. For a variety of corporate reasons, they choose to use a brand manager of that same line of dog food to conduct the research in three cities. That moderator is a vested moderator because he/she meets the following criteria:
a. He/she receives a salary from the company that makes the product.
b. He/she may have worked on the coupon or rebate ideas that will be addressed by respondents.
c. He/she will be affected by the results of the research when planning short- and long-term strategies in his/her department.
In another scenario: There is a market research department of the dog food company whose members are charged with tasks to collect both secondary and primary research to help the company with short- and long-range objectives. The brand manager may contact the market research department and ask one of the qualitative researchers to conduct focus groups with customers about the coupon and rebate ideas generated by the brand manager’s team. That market research department moderator is also vested because:
a. He/she works for the dog food company and receives a salary.
b. It is part of their job assignment to conduct primary research and QREs fall under that umbrella.
c. Their department has a mandate to collect data for other company employee projects.
Challenges of Being a Vested Moderator
A vested moderator, as a staff member in the company that is deeply entwined in the product or service, is under the spotlight of research and it may take the following forms:
- Staff moderator may feel the pressure of work peers and supervisors who observe their work.
- Feels strongly about the direction the company should take with respect to the product or service being evaluated.
- Subject to temptation. Because they are “in-house” and know the corporate plan, they may subconsciously avoid a line of questions or spend too long “searching” for specific answers, rather than keeping the focus on learning what respondents have to say regardless of the impact on future events at the company.
- Runs the risk of being an order taker rather than a decision-maker as they are part of a hierarchical system of boss and subordinate in the company.
How to be Vested and Still be a Successful Moderator
Since more and more companies are bringing market research functions back in-house and using staff as moderators, it would be wise to know how to be vested and still be effective as a moderator. Below are ten best practices to increase the opportunity for successful outcomes.
- When working with “client team,” put everything in writing to minimize misunderstandings and maximize opportunity to meet expectations.
- Give observers “client ground rules” and treat them the same way you would a client if you were a freelancer.
- Avoid going into “collusion” with peers about what could happen in the research session. Stay professional and detached.
- Mentally stay detached when you are in “moderator mode” – putting all your energy on making your respondents the “star” of the research process and keep the focus away from work peer and supervisor judgments about how and what you are doing.
- Hold the line on issues such as:
- Gossiping about participants
- Including/excluding difficult respondents
- Changing the guide to stroke an observer’s ego
- Clear the project methodology and the moderator’s guide with “key clients” well before first QRE is conducted.
- Practice UPR (Unconditional Positive Regard) with respondents and with the “client team.”
- Practice sophisticated naiveté. Let respondents tell you what you already know. Avoid looking “smart” in front of colleagues. Instead put your energy on “diving deep” with respondents, even if you do not look so good in the process.
- On the day of the QREs, physically distance yourself from members of the “client team” who have come to observe. Meet them one hour before the start of the first QRE.
- If the study is “blind” (e.g., respondents do not know the sponsor), do not lie and say you are a freelancer. A good phrase: “I’m under contract to collect information on this topic today.” The vested moderator’s contract is their salary – and therefore no need to “pretend to be a freelancer.”
How can a Vested Moderator be Effective?
A tiger cannot change his stripes, and a vested moderator will always have the bias of working at the company that needs the research; however, a vested moderator can be trained to uphold some industry standards.
Sending an untrained moderator with vested interest in to conduct research is like tying together the ankles of a swimmer. He or she can still swim, if they have powerful arm muscles, but a lot of energy is expended, a lot of water is displaced, and it takes a lot longer to get from one end of the pool to the other.
What a trained moderator can bring to the vested moderator game:
- Asks questions from the logic pattern of respondents
- Paces the discussion from general to specific questions
- Does not “tip their hand” by saying “we” (referring to self and the company where they work); or letting respondents know the moderator’s viewpoint on any issue under discussion
- Quickly and naturally creates rapport as well as a safe environment for a diverse set of answers from respondents
- Avoids “why” questions and does not put respondents on the defensive in their answers
- Uses a variety of techniques to keep the group engaged and highly verbal
- Is well prepared, has a sense of “research rigor;” and follows accepted principles of qualitative research inquiry
- Works through the four stages of qualitative inquiry without shortcutting any steps
- Does not analyze or summarize while moderating. The bulk of the inquiry process is spent, instead, on asking key questions that lead to achieving the study purpose along with stellar probes to get below top-of-mind answers
- Has a variety of techniques to minimize tendency to “lead the witness”
It is possible to be “vested” and still be a successful moderator. What it takes is strict adherence to these principles:
I. Commitment to the study purpose;
II. Ability to stay objective in a highly subjective environment;
III. Able to understand that “bad news” from respondents is not a reflection of moderator skills;
IV. Training in effective methods of qualitative inquiry and keeping those skills updated;
V. Holding the flag for research rigor and living under the motto: “Do what is right, not what is easy.”
A non-vested moderator has to honor these same principles, but they do not have to do it in the spotlight of work peers and supervisors.
If you are a vested moderator and ever in doubt about choosing to conduct research or hire a vendor, trust your instincts, and do not let cost be the only factor considered when making the final decision.
Written by: Naomi Henderson, CEO & Co-Founder