The Dynamics of the Group Interview

Myril D. Axelrod, Young & Rubicam International, Inc.
[ to cite ]:
Myril D. Axelrod (1976) ,"The Dynamics of the Group Interview", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 437-441.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 437-441


Myril D. Axelrod, Young & Rubicam International, Inc.

Because I am employed by one of the world's largest advertising agencies and work closely with a variety of clients, including many of the major marketers, I have had the opportunity to witness, in recent years, a growing feeling of insecurity with focused group research and a growing desire to have some kind of yard-stick by which to "measure" the kind of focused group services that are being bought. At least three of the client "giants" I know of have even gone so far as to issue virtual bans on the use of this kind of research unless it can meet rigid standards of positioning and quality.

Part of the concern about focused groups, my client sources report, stems from the very serious problem of misuse of the observations drawn from them, and the mistaken impression that such research can be used to circumvent or substitute for larger-scale quantitative exploration or to provide definitive direction in areas where it is not able to do so.

The question of when to use focused groups and the very important contributions that good focused group research can and does consistently make will be discussed by other panelists. I won't, therefore, dwell on it, except to express my hope that we, as researchers, will realize how dangerous it can be, both for us and for the client himself, if we foster in any way the desire to "sell" focused group research for purposes where it is not appropriate, or if we allow the insights drawn from focused group research to be used as the kind of incontrovertible "proof" it is not intended to be.

My particular assignment for this conference pertains to another aspect of why clients are becoming increasingly fearful about the use of focused group research--the quality of the focused groups they have been buying and the absence of any standards or yard-sticks with which they can evaluate what they have bought.

In this area of research, in particular, a client is all too often buying the proverbial "pig in a poke." He has been told that qualitative research is "subjective;" that its value depends on the interpretive skill of the practitioner; that the practitioner has the special sensitivities and the special kind of knowledge that equip him to create the "magic" of the group interview and to draw marvelous wisdom from it.

But how, the client can argue, can he develop the confidence he is supposed to have; how can these special skills be measured or evaluated; what "checks" or controls are there; what around rules ought to be met? Today, unfortunately, there are no ground rules. In fact, within the past few years, I have seen hundreds of new practitioners of the "art" of focused group interviewing spring full-blown on the scene with no more experience than that they have watched a few groups and are convinced that they can, with no difficulty, do equally well. In the course of a recent talk I had with one of my clients, we went through a list three pages long of research suppliers who had done focused group work for his company in the past year, and neither of us recognized more than five of the names as trained, experienced, proven practitioners.

A further, very serious complication is the fact that there have never been any prescribed procedures or techniques which qualitative researchers have been required to follow. There are, in fact, almost no textbooks or training materials with which to help a person coming into the field learn the basics of the focused group interviewing technique. As a result, the sad reality is that every moderator walks into the focused group room and sets his own rules. If has even come to pass that any practitioner who manages to "discover" a "new and dynamic" gimmick that will make his groups seem different or innovative becomes this year's "hot" researcher.

While I certainly cannot deny that there are always, and should continue to be, new techniques to be learned and new skills to be developed with which to improve the success and effectiveness of focused group research, I would like to make a plea for some kind of basic framework, some kind of essential starting point that can give this amorphous "discipline" some much needed discipline.

Over and over again, I have attended and even participated in conferences or panels on focused group research when virtually every practitioner in the room had his own point of view, his own rationale and his own conviction that whatever he was doing was inordinately effective and successful. Yet another practitioner was taking a completely opposite position and advocating a totally contradictory approach. I remember a client sitting next to me at one of these meetings who left the room saying, "If I ever considered using focused groups, this would certainly convince me to forget it. What they're trying to tell me is that 'anything goes' and that can't be the way it is."

I, for one, don't believe that is the way it is, and certainly not the way it should be. That is why I would like to spell out for you some of the essential ground rules I try to bring to bear and some of the techniques which I have been applying to focused group interviewing for a host of years and literally thousands of interviews.

I recognize, as I have suggested, that other practitioners may not concur in all of these points of view; also that there will certainly be approaches or dimensions that they feel are important which I will not cover. However, I would hope that this discussion can possibly become a starting point from which to build some body of basic information on the practice of group interviewing as it is applied in advertising and marketing research.

The first essential for effective group research, in my mind, is:


I feel that it is crucial that the respondents in a group discussion at all times stay in their role as consumers. I believe that their only value in advertising or product research is as consumers, and that the only insights they can give us that will be of value must come from their experiences and reactions as consumers.

One of the greatest failures of qualitative research, in my opinion, is that the consumers who are called in for qualitative research projects are so often placed in the role of advertising or marketing experts. They come to an impressive, big company setting, are placed at an official-looking conference table, presented with a group of alternatives, and asked to make choices, judgments, comparative decisions, which they are not qualified to make and which are rightfully the province and responsibility of the marketing executive.

The only role that consumers should be asked to play is their own, and everything possible should be done to foster that attitude and to keep them in that role.

Our own way of doing this starts with the first contact with the potential respondents. The recruiters who solicit respondents set the mood by explaining the importance of the person's experiences as a consumer and the value of sharing those experiences with the people who are bringing them the products they use and trying to give them the things they want.

This same kind of positioning is also employed at the session itself when we make our introductory remarks. The participants are again told about their value as consumers and reassured about the contribution each has to make in drawing upon his own experiences.

We also ensure that the setting will not encourage an inappropriate role. Our sessions are held in a modest, "lived-in" looking living room located away from the rest of the business of the agency. The respondents sit on couches and chairs, never at a conference table. There are no obvious mirrors, no cameras, no video equipment. We studiously avoid these kinds of equipment because we feel they are overt and disturbing reminders to the respondents that they are expected to be "on."

We want to see our consumers and talk to them in a setting and mood that is as normal and familiar for them as we can make it because, again, we want to be able to capture the experience and feelings they have in their every-day environment. We also want to establish the kind of rapport with them that will further foster this kind of relaxed and natural response.

This, then, brings us to my second essential for effective group interviewing:


To do this, we select and screen our moderators with scrupulous care, emphasizing always the warmth, the genuineness and the sensitivity which the moderator will bring to bear.

Although it is highly important that the moderator in a group session be non-directive and that he studiously avoid bringing his own influence on the responses, the personality and the demeanor of the moderator can unquestionably be a key factor in the effectiveness and even the "validity" of what comes out of the session. (I use the term "validity" here to reflect the honesty and openness of the respondents, and not in any statistical or quantitative context.)

Our experience has shown us time and time again how much more involvement and participation occurs when the moderator is warm and reassuring, when he(or she)has a quality of genuine interest and empathy with the respondents, when he is truly a listener, when he can readily communicate the sincerity and concern that make the respondents want to talk.

We also look for moderators who are "alive," who can keep the respondents alert and involved; moderators who can throw themselves into what is happening and can encourage the respondents, by their own sense of involvement and interest, to recognize that something interesting and exciting is happening.

A focused group discussion should be exciting for the moderator, for the respondents, and for the listeners, and often it is the moderator who is responsible when it is not. But, even more important, if the moderator has not kept up the enthusiasm and interest of the respondents, the likelihood is that he will not be able to draw out the full range of insights the respondents can offer.

"Why bother?," the respondents might well feel in such a situation--and clearly, the research must suffer.

Essential number three:


The success and effectiveness of the session is frequently directly related to the "tone" established for the discussion. The philosophy of interviewing to which I subscribe calls, as I have indicated, for a relaxed, informal mood and a free-flowing conversational feeling to the discussion. I believe that the goal of the session should be to draw out those responses and reactions and those insights which would appear if the participants were discussing the subject with their own friends or neighbors, rather than any kind of formal, structured, question and answer situation.

We are, therefore, particularly concerned about the way in which questions are asked or probing is undertaken. The very same probe, we find, can be posed with so different an attitude that the response is almost a total reversal of the answer that might have been drawn if the attitude and the approach of the interviewer had been different.

We feel that it is extremely important to be supportive and reassuring in drawing out respondents. We feel that we can probe almost endlessly and still not "lose" our respondents as long as they recognize that we are not attacking or challenging or trying to make them look ridiculous.

Even when we are pursuing a point fairly relentlessly, we try to do it in a natural, empathetic way and our questioning becomes kind of interplay of thought rather than an attack. We will even, at times, reassure our respondents with a comment like, "I think I understand, but could you explain a little more?" We also utilize the values of the group situation by calling on others in the group to lend their support by asking, "How about someone else? Perhaps you have had that kind of feeling(or experience), too. Can you tell me a little more about this?"

Sometimes we will be overtly apologetic, explaining that we don't mean to hammer at someone, but we truly want to understand.

We firmly believe that we can get more from respondents who want to talk to us and who are encouraged by our genuine interest to search more deeply into their feelings and emotions.

There are other practitioners who claim that they only get to the "real" stuff when they make the respondents angry, and they studiously go about challenging, provoking and even humiliating the group members. I have never yet seen a consumer buy a product in anger, nor have I seen him respond at the cash register because he is lashing back. And, in my book, the name of the game will always be to try to capture in the group session the emotional frame of reference the consumer is going to experience in the actual buying situation.

Our approach to interviewing also avoids an overtly authoritarian stance, and we attempt to achieve as much spontaneity and free-flowing conversation as possible. At the same time, however, we recognize the very important need for the moderator to stay in enough control that the discussion does not wander off in a totally meaningless direction. To achieve this kind of delicate balance requires essential number four:



While I strongly prefer a non-directive approach to one that is restrictively authoritarian, I have seen non-directive interviewers who might just as well not have been in the room at all. And dreary, wasteful sessions they were indeed!

A middle course seems to work best for us. The respondents are encouraged to ventilate all their thoughts and ideas in a spontaneous manner and group interplay is encouraged at all times. But, the moderator is always on top of what is going on and the group is always aware that he is there to keep a structure.

Good group moderators, in my opinion, are like good teachers. They must earn the cooperation and the respect of the group members, and, having gained that good feeling, will have no trouble in maintaining both their own role and. the proper function of the session.

The good moderator has also done a great deal of homework. He has had comprehensive discussions with all the people concerned with the project so that he understands totally the objectives of the research; what hypotheses have been raised; what the special areas of concern are. He has also given a great deal of thought to how to approach these various matters in the discussion.

Essential number five, therefore, is clearly,


I can't stress strongly enough, that conducting a focused group interview involves a lot more than just going in and asking a few questions. In fact, anybody who goes into a focused group with such an attitude is run-ing the very serious risk of being grossly misled.

The kind of question that is asked, how it is worded, when it is asked, how it appears in the context of the prior discussion, and, as mentioned before, the tone in which it is asked can all have a crucial effect on the kind of response it will bring. Serious, dedicated moderators will consider very carefully the interviewing guide they will use in a session and in introducing areas for discussion. They will work out in their minds the wording that will be the most non-committal and allow for the most meaningful kind of response from the group members.

We, for instance, never go into a session--even though we do many hundreds of sessions a year--without first preparing a written guide which we have thought and re-thought in terms of all its possible ramifications. We will carefully avoid asking a question like, "We would like to have your impression of this commercial," which, you can believe, gives you just exactly that: the consumer's own brand of strictly intellectual advertising expertise.

We've seen it happen over and over again: ask a question that makes a respondent an advertising expert and you've lost his value as a consumer.

We will also debate long and hard about what we are going to introduce first in our questioning and what effect that might have on the areas that will follow.

Often, for instance, a client will suggest that we have what he calls a "general discussion" before we introduce his concept or his advertising. In many instances, this would be an incorrect and misleading approach because it would create an unnatural positioning for the concept. When consumers see an ad on television or in a magazine, they have not been thinking about the category for an hour or three-quarters of an hour before. They haven't intellectualized all of their feelings and taken strong public positions which they might have to reverse after seeing the concept.

In many situations, therefore, we present a concept or an ad as the original stimulus for the discussion and are, in that way, able to get the consumer's fresh and spontaneous responses. Then, later, we are able to work from that reaction into a more general discussion of the category and how the product fits into the category.

In other circumstances, however, the goal of the research is somewhat different, and the key requirement is to get a basic orientation into the category without letting the respondents be aware that we have a particular interest or axe to grind. In that instance, we would work downward from the general to the specific. That approach requires a completely different line of questioning.

Another case in point: we often struggle for a long time to avoid questions that will be so direct, so suggestive that it is inevitable that we will be misled. When I hear moderators asking questions like, "Is there anything unbelievable about that commercial?" or, "Is there anything you don't like about the commercial,'' I am reminded of the caution I heard a long time ago when I was a young mother. If you say to the kids, "Now don't forget, I don't want you to put beans in your ears," you can be sure they are going to put beans in their ears even if they never thought about it before.

One thing I can guarantee--and I have countless incidents to back it up--if there is some thing genuinely negative on the respondents' minds, you'll hear about it all too soon, whether you ask or not.

And what about that question that every client thinks he wants to hear: "Would you be interested in buying the product?" Again, what a shockingly easy way to be misled! How much more meaningful it can be to let the consumers talk about the product in their own terms, to let them deal, in an open-ended way, with how it fits into their lives and their needs in the category; to let them demonstrate, through their spontaneous enthusiasm or lack of enthusiasm and the degree of emotional involvement which they manifest, whether or not the product or the concept is viable.

This is why you are doing qualitative research, and qualitative research means that you are examining the quality of the response rather than the response itself.

Although I have spent several of the previous pages talking about the need for a carefully developed and well researched interviewing guide, I am now going to also suggest that, once the moderator goes into the room, he must never fall into the trap of getting caught up in his guide and so dependent upon it that it stymies the free flow of the conversation. He should also carefully avoid referring to the guide while he is ostensibly listening to the respondents.

There is nothing more important in a group than to listen intently and fully, for it is, as I mentioned before, the interviewer's interest and involvement that encourage the respondents to go on. As in the spy stories, the moderator must prepare the guide with scrupulous care, study it with equally scrupulous care, and then, so to speak, he must eat it. By the time he goes into the session, the guide should have become so incorporated into his thinking that it literally has become a part of him.

This is the only way the interviewer can carry on the free-flowing, comfortable, natural "conversation" that makes the discussion valuable. He must be prepared to come into the conversation and open up areas for discussion at appropriate moments while yet not interfering with the spontaneity of the responses and the valuable exchange of dialogue between respondents which is the rationale for the group experience.

This, in turn, points up another essential which the moderator must bring to the session. He must be skilled in the handling of the group dynamics which will occur and know how to use them in a positive way. He must also know how to short-circuit possible negatives of the group situation and minimize possible contamination.

Essential number six, therefore, is,


We, in the qualitative research field, are all too familiar with the criticism that is repeatedly leveled at focused group research, and particularly with the most prevalent of all, the belief that group members merely pick up from one another and reflect the same ideas.

Several of the clients I have spoken with even take the position that, after the first one or two respondents have spoken, none of the other respondents can be considered "fresh." Someone else I know, who is himself a moderator, thinks it is very humorous to remark that six focused groups are really just six individual interviews.

While I know that a snowballing effect can certainly occur in the group discussion environment, I also know that it is possible to counteract and minimize such influences with the right kind of moderating and a sensitive repositioning statement by the moderator. Let me give you some examples. We find, for instance, that, as soon as we see an idea starting to "catch on," we can get back on course by asking, "What about someone else? Does someone else feel differently?" with this kind of reassurance, a person who has a different point of view feels free to disagree and express his own position.

We also say, at times, in order to turn a discussion away from a course, "That's one point of view," or, "That's an interesting point; now what about some other thoughts?" Or, we call upon a respondent who has shown signs of another kind of thinking and bring him into the conversation. That then provides the moderator with the opportunity to say, "There seem to be several different points of view that have been brought up. Where are the rest of you on these? What has your experience been?"

In many instances, we also try to avoid group influence by going around quickly at the start of the session to get an immediate, first-thought reaction from everyone. We don't probe at this time or let anyone develop a point of view. Then we go back and pursue the various reactions more totally. But we have first had an opportunity to get all the first-blush ideas out on the floor.

These are some of the ways we use to avoid group influence when it is overt and easily spotted. There are, however, the problems that occur when the effect of a remark or an idea has sparked a whole line of reasoning that might not otherwise have occurred. Even the respondents themselves may not know that this kind of influence has been at work. To guard against this kind of contamination, we always insist on supporting groups, at least one and hopefully more, with essentially the same types of respondents, so that we can find whether the same ideas and reactions repeat, even though the conversation may take a somewhat different turn.

Another much talked about and highly exaggerated hazard of the group interviewing situation is the dominant respondent and/or the non-stop talker. Again, this can only occur if the moderator permits it; and a skilled, competent moderator knows how to deal with such offenders. They require firm and direct intervention, albeit intervention which is civil and good-natured and which doesn't embarrass either the offender or the other members, of the group.

If a disruptive or dominating respondent is put down too sharply, other members of the group might be fearful of exposing themselves to the same kind of attack, so they take a safe course and say nothing.

The best technique is usually to break right into a sentence with a reassuring, "That's interesting, but let me just find out what these people over here have to say," or, "Yes, I understand. Let me get some other opinions."

The moderator must also studiously avoid involving the big talker any more than necessary in other parts of the conversation and should direct questions or comments away from this person and toward others in the group wherever possible.

The eager talkers are more often than not counterbalanced by reluctant talkers who need special encouragement and a show of interest on the part of the moderator. It is interesting to see how easily they can be brought into the conversation with reassuring support and some show of recognition from the moderator like, "What about you? You've been very quiet, but I'd really like to know how you feel about some of these things we've been talking about. What ideas did you get when you saw the commercial?"

The moderator who is skilled in working with group dynamics knows how to draw out individual experiences and reactions.

He is adept at "using" what is happening in the group to stimulate and broaden the discussion.

He encourages positive interaction between respondents and recognizes the potential for them to spark one another into deeper and more fruitful introspection. At the same time, he is ever watchful of negative interaction and is quick to head off painful incidents that can interfere with the freedom with which all the respondents will react.

He knows how to recognize the difference between the intellectual and the emotional--between what the respondents are saying and what they are experiencing.

He is constantly aware of the mood and the demeanor of the participants and knows that the strongest "clues" in "reading" the group will come from what is happening and from the emotional affect he perceives in the respondents. He is always listening with a particularly keen "third" ear.

He knows how to cut right through the expertise and get the respondents back on the track.

And, most important of all, he knows how to interpret the group for his clients so that they, too, will be able to take what is valuable and genuine from the group.

Basically, the good moderator is a "pro," and he got that way by learning his trade well and long.

Again, I come back to the very same point at which I began. We need more practitioners who are indeed "pros" and who have learned their trade well and long. We need schools and work-study programs where they can be trained and developed. And, we need, desperately, some kind of quality control.

If we continue in the haphazard, everyone-set-his-own-rules manner we have been following, the inevitable result will be that more and more clients will become disillusioned and even embittered about this valuable, and in many cases, irreplaceable research tool.

Some clients already feel that way. Others are moving in that direction. And what a crying shame that is!