Editor’s note: Mel Prince is president of Prince Associates, a Darien, Conn., marketing research firm, and visiting associate professor of marketing at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business.

Focus group methodology traditionally calls for an individual, trained moderator who personally elicits information in accord with some pre-defined purpose. The purpose is typically succinct and specific. The information is obtained from an assembled group, often comprised of six to 12 eligible respondents. Group participants are further selected to be sufficiently diverse to generate lively and innovative ideas, but sufficiently similar to bring common discourse to the session.

The advantages and disadvantages of traditional focus groups as a mode of data collection have been amply documented. Forty-four years ago Merton, Fiske and Kendall’s classic monograph, The Focused Interview, noted that focus groups may generate a broader variety of meaningful responses than individual interviews, leading to more insightful interpretation.1

The means by which focus groups work to advantage are by a) the release of inhibitions, b) opening up diverse subjective reports and evaluations, and c) activating forgotten details. However, a number of serious disadvantages of focus groups are alluded to in this same work. These include:

  • Problems relating to the traditional focus group interview situation. Engagement of several leaders among group members in argumentation or discussions of shared feelings may refocus the discussion on irrelevant issues. Merton, Fiske and Kendall refer to the “leader effect.”

“Wherever groups of people gather to talk some are more articulate than others. This may be the result of fewer inhibitions, general volubility, higher intelligence, higher social status or greater familiarity with the topic under discussion.”

  • Problems relating to the interruption of continuity of the traditional focus group. Because there is so much ground to cover the moderator can get lost and sidetracked in the forest of detail. Important topics may not be explored in sufficient substantive detail. As Merton et al note:

“A train of thoughtful or expressive responses by some is not infrequently brought to a halt by others in the interview group who unintentionally set up a kind of road block. Moreover, the interviewees who find difficulty in putting their responses into words will at times welcome such interruptions which release them from the obligations of reporting.”

  • Problems relating to the inhibiting effect of the traditional focus group. The judgments of others in the group and that of the moderator may reinforce the reticence of group members to disclose intimate views. Information that is disclosed may be more of the surface variety, mitigating some potential strengths of traditional focus groups. In commenting on this phenomenon, Merton and his colleagues assert:

“It is difficult enough to speak of socially disapproved feelings or behavior in a private session with a sympathetic interviewer who has made it abundantly clear that he does not pass judgment; the difficulty is compounded by the presence of others who often make it evident by their behavior that they do not reserve their judgment of the speaker.”

In the light of some of these problems associated with traditional focus groups, a fresh approach is proposed. This approach does not use an individual moderator. Rather, this approach uses several moderators in succession over the course of a focus group session. The approach is called serial moderating technique (SMT). With SMT, three to five moderators are employed for time intervals, sufficient to cover major sections of the overall focus interview guide. This overall guide is the joint product of all participating moderators. Afterwards, each moderator is re-oriented to this instrument by a group process among moderators, during which time further suggestions and critiques are offered to improve information yields and insights.

The SMT begins with an orientation of focus group participants to the format by the first moderator of the session. The orientation explains the serial moderating experience and the aims of the approach, i.e., to bring out fresh ideas, while enlivening and enriching the group session. Participants take very well to the new format, and involve themselves in the task with keen interest.

Actual focus group sessions with this new technique are comprised of sequential mini-focus groups. The mini-groups address pre-defined information units of an integrated moderators’ guide. While each serial moderator does one informational unit per session, these assignments are rotated from focus group to focus group. Thus, information about each informational unit results from the aggregate moderating effort of several moderators. The result is that the frames of references of individual moderators are integrated. Thus, the unique insights of individual moderators are, themselves, moderated. The consensus of interpretation is more reliable and based on a broader factual basis.

Let us re-visit some of the problems associated with traditional focus groups to see what serial moderating can contribute. First, let’s examine problems relating to the traditional focus group interview situation. With SMT the variety of moderating styles employed renews and refocuses the interests of all participants. Some participants will recover their rapport with the entry of a fresh moderator. Moderators who have favored one participant in terms of air time will be supplanted with moderators with no such preference.

For example, some moderators may identify group participant leaders to be used as springboards for discussion. Other moderators may work on more inhibited participants in order to build and orchestrate group discussion.

Second, let’s examine problems relating to the interruption of continuity in the traditional focus group. Since each moderator specializes in a section of the overall session, relevant questioning is much better focused. All moderators have been involved in generating the session guide, so key issues are much more likely to be understood and salient. The coverage of key topics is more assured: “bouquets in, bouquets out.” Since moderators have a smaller field of information to cover, the questioning and probing are far more intensive and targeted. Each moderator has a set of incisive questions, including probes within probes.

Third, let’s examine problems relating to the inhibiting effect of the traditional focus group. The SMT approach allows for a greater depth of response from each participant in the focus group. Participants who talk to different moderators build on what they have divulged to prior moderators to explain their positions anew, freely elaborating and refining their views, without the barrier of their initial inhibition. Moderators who observe prior sections of the session can discern the differences between inhibited and uninhibited group members, as well as the group forces that affect them. Moderating strategies can be adapted on the fly to encourage participation of the inhibited and to enrich session protocols.

The potential disadvantages of serial moderating must also be taken into account. The planning of such a project is arduous, involved and risky. The diverse talents of moderators must be smoothly engaged to meet project objectives. This involves meetings, drafts and re-drafts of the research designs and of substantive avenues to explore. The interpretation and writing of the final report is no longer in the hands of a single “guru.” The interpretation of results may be a matter of some controversy which requires intelligent resolution. Therefore, to assure closure, one of the moderators must be assigned the role of project manager.

Naturally, the SMT works best under certain conditions. The number of sessions must be large enough to permit moderator rotation. Also, moderators must be able to perform seamlessly as a team. This improves as training and experience are obtained by moderators. Another requirement is that the subject matter must be sufficiently complex to be reduced to meaningful information units of sufficient length. Finally, from the client’s perspective, there are the issues of understanding the added value of SMT and the associated cost/benefit ratio. An educated client is the best customer for SMT.


1 Merton, Robert K., Marjorie Fiske and Patricia L. Kendall. The Focused Interview, Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1956.