Follow us as we hire a professional focus group moderator and use a blind facility for the first time — and discover what a difference it can make.



Focus groups are editors' eyes and ears. They let us see what catches our readers' attention and hear how they read the magazine. What did they think of the cover? Do they read us in their office, at home, on a plane? Do they follow the articles straight through, or just skim?

Our team of editors has hosted these customer discussions before, but we had never used a blind focus group facility or a professional moderator. Until now. Here's our experience.

First: Find a Facilitator

The first step was to find a moderator, and my first stop was the 3M Meeting Network Web Site (www.3m.com/meetingnetwork). Using its “Meet the Pros” search engine, I searched for facilitators by state for lists hundreds of experts. A more direct route is the Qualitative Research Consultants Association's site (www.qrca.org), which lists moderators by specialty as well as location.

One facilitator on the 3M site recommended Wendy Dodek from Insight Research & Training (www.insightRT.com), a Boston-based research consultant with 13 years' experience running all types of focus groups, for clients ranging from Eastman Kodak to International Paper. This was her first magazine, but she had a background in journalism, and I immediately liked her attitude and professionalism. We decided to give her a shot.

Our Initial Meeting

Wendy's first question at our initial meeting was just what we wanted to hear: “What is it that you want to accomplish?” After a discussion about our mission, our customers, and our competitive situation, we moved into logistics. Among the specifics we had to identify: exactly whom we wanted to invite (directors of sales and marketing at Boston-area based companies from our reader list); how many attendees (eight to 10 is ideal); and where we would hold the meeting (she recommended Fieldwork Boston, one of a franchise of 14 properties located across the country). From the time of our initial meeting to the date of the focus group, we had two months to recruit attendees and prepare the discussion.

Wendy made several suggestions that went against what we had done in the past. But we decided to follow her advice on most of them:

  • She suggested that we offer a $150 incentive to attract attendees. This was a little stiff for us, so we settled on $80 gift certificates from a nice Boston restaurant. Fieldwork normally recruits 10 people, with the idea that eight will show (with cash incentives), but in our case (using the gift certificates), they thought it would be safer to recruit 12.

  • She told us that you get better turnout when you do a focus group in early evening. We have always held these meetings in the morning, followed by lunch. But we tried it her way. In the end, our attendance was smaller than expected, although we can't say if that was because of the time of day or the date in early December (22 readers said it was a bad day or that they had a conflict with holiday preparations or parties).

  • Wendy recommended a suburban location in Waltham, Mass., along Route 128 (Boston's high-tech corridor), to attract people leaving the city on their way home. We had figured that people on their way home would have only one thing in mind — getting home — but we decided to go with her recommendation rather than holding it downtown, as we had always done.



Prep Work

Right after we met, Wendy drafted a script for the recruiters and sent it to me for approval. We provided a list of readers from the greater Boston area, and Fieldwork Boston took it from there. They also worked from their database of previous focus group attendees, who, presumably, would be more open to attending another.

The next step was to provide Wendy with all our backup from our previous focus groups so she could start on the discussion guide. The first draft was broken into several sections, with time allotments for each. Each section focused on a goal we hoped to achieve: to learn how planning meetings fits into our readers' jobs, to learn exactly how they use the magazine, to do unaided recall of a previous issue, to critique the current issue on the table, and to compare our magazine to the competition.

Wendy added a couple of exercises that ended up being very useful, including one in which she had attendees envision our magazine as a car. To our delight, we were a sleek, streamlined convertible, implying — we think — that we deliver very focused information in a sharp-looking package. This is perhaps where an outside facilitator is most helpful: for bringing a fresh perspective to things you've always done a certain way.

We only needed a few rounds with the guide and several e-mails in which Wendy questioned the competition, terminology, and other industry-specific details before she was ready to lead the group.

And We're On

Fieldwork Boston is a nicely appointed office in a busy office park. The focus group room was sparse but comfortable, and the editors sat in an adjacent, darkened room behind one-way mirrors. Although our readers knew they were being watched, they had no idea who, or how many, were behind that mirror.

Blind focus groups promote honesty. There's no question that it's easier to speak candidly if you're not afraid of offending anyone. And our participants did exactly that (though at times they called out to “whoever is listening” when they wanted to make an important point).

What does a moderator like Wendy bring to the table? “The ability to have outside perspective, an objective vantage point, and someone who's not enmeshed in the day-to-day,” is how she puts it. I couldn't agree more.

Along with that, it was invaluable for me to be able to concentrate on what was being said without the responsibility of leading the discussion. I didn't have to worry about keeping to specified time-frames and adjusting the flow of the meeting — that was Wendy's job.

Also, I could see people's gestures and expressions far better than I would have at the head of the table. At one point, Wendy gave the attendees several minutes to look over the latest issue of the magazine — just as they would read it in their offices. To watch people skim through the magazine only reinforced what we, as editors, suspect about our readers: They're very busy, and something has to really reach out and grab them for them to read on.

Thanks to what we learned in our blind focus group, we'll be able to do just that.

Cost Sheet

Facilitator: $2,000 — This fee depends on many factors, such as the type of group, number of groups, and discussion topic, and includes all the initial prep and follow-up analysis.

Facility Cost: $650 — Fieldwork Boston recently implemented a policy used by many focus group centers, charging $450 per focus group if you hold more than one, and $650 for just one. In our case, they waived the extra fee.

Recruiting: $1,140 — Fieldwork charged a $95 per person recruiting fee for 12 people. In our case, they eventually cut this in half because they were only able to recruit six attendees.

Incentives: $640 — This can range from $250 per person for physicians to $50 per person for consumers. In our case, we purchased $80 gift certificates for eight attendees; however, this cost was reduced to $480 when we ended up with six.

Respondent Food: $125 per group.

Client Food: $140 — If you want meals, they range from $28 to $38 per person.

Video and Audio: Included at Fieldwork facilities is an audiotape, which you take with you the day of the event, and a videotape, which is mailed to you soon after.

Total Cost: Approximately $5,000

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