Audience Dialogue

Small-town group discussion

Case study 19

In the summer of the year 199--, I arrived in the small town of N--- (as a Victorian novelist might begin). This was in Western Australia, where I was conducting a series of focus groups. The participants had been organized by a market research company in Perth. All I needed to do was arrive at the right time and get them talking.

I found the venue: a back room in a shabby hotel. A century earlier, it would have been a splendid building, but now it was simply down-at-heel. The evening sun poured in through the west-facing windows, revealing the effect on the woodwork of 100 years of beer-drinking. I set up the tape recorder, and the people began to arrive.

"Hello Joe," said the first participant to the second. "Haven't seen you for a long time. What are you doing these days?"

I hadn't counted on this. The town, with a population of 5,000 or so, was small enough that everybody seemed to know everybody else. Normally, focus groups are done in cities, and you can safely assume that nobody knows anybody else. Here, though, most of them knew each other.

There's a wide range of styles among focus group moderators. At one extreme, the moderator is something like an inquisitor. There's a prepared list of questions, from which he or she doesn't deviate. They're dealt with in the order they appear on the discussion guide, and irrelevant comments are not permitted.

At the other extreme, there's the completely non-directive style. The moderator simply says "Talk about such-and-such", sits back, and listens.

Different styles are appropriate for different situations. The less is known about the area being studied, the more non-directive the moderator should be. My own experience, having commissioned (and thus sat in on) many focus groups, and also having run many groups myself, is that most moderators are too directive, and thus lose valuable information. I find it most productive to start off with fairly frequent questions, and gradually let the participants make the running, tossing in questions only every few minutes or when they run out of something to talk about.

In this case, when the group began talking, one man dominated the proceedings. This is not uncommon, and usually a few hints from the moderator (e.g. "Does anybody else have anything to say on this matter?") will dissuade the dominator. But this guy wouldn't stop. He had a bee in his bonnet about something - I think he was upset about the loss of some local program.

To my amazement, he started trying to run the group like a public meeting. "I move that we are dissatisfied with the radio service in N---" he boomed. "All in favour say Aye."

I was about to step in and point out that this wasn't how focus groups work, but another participant - a middle-aged woman - got in before me.

"Would you just shut up, Jimmy?" she snapped. "We've all had enough of your carrying on like this. What will this man think of the people of N--- if you behave in this way?" (By "this man" she meant me.)

After a great uproar of general agreement, Jimmy became silent. He hardly said a word for the next hour or two.

I was amazed. Obviously something had happened in this group (or some of them) in the past, and I was at a disadvantage for not understanding it. But I left thinking "Why not run a group like a public meeting after all? Maybe it's not such a bad idea." This amazing outburst helped give me the idea for consensus groups.

- Dennis List