Do You Really Need a Local Moderator? Pros and Cons

Posted On: 04/17/14

By: Susan G Abbott   

When you are doing multi-country qualitative research in other English-speaking countries, you need to decide if you want to use a local moderator or have the home-country moderator do the work in the other countries.

As a Canadian-based researcher, I am often asked for referrals to good Canadian field services by researchers based in the UK or USA who are planning to travel here to conduct the research. Or they may be planning to do the research online from their home location, the no-travel option.

There are pros and cons to both approaches. Here’s our take on the issue.

Taking your home-country moderator with you


You know and trust this person whom you have worked with before. They know your team, they know your organization, they know your challenges, and they know your preferences in terms of reporting. So you can expect that communication with the researcher will run smoothly, just as it would in your home market.

Your home-country qualitative research consultant (QRC) is likely to see clearly the differences in the other market, because they are foreign to that market. So in this way, they are looking at the foreign market with the same perspective you have.


Anyone not living in a culture will be challenged to interpret its nuances. Consider what happens when you are hearing simultaneous translation of a focus group conducted in a foreign language. Sometimes you will hear things that make no sense to you, even after being translated. They can be very small and simple, but still important.

My favorite example of this in Canada was hearing a group of university students in Montreal (French group) use the phrase “brown socks.” This meant very little to me or the client. The interpreter and local moderator were able to explain the meaning of this phrase. Interestingly, neither had heard this idiom used before, but they were in complete agreement about what was being said. The words boring, conventional, stuffy, or dull would be good synonyms.

Another disadvantage is that the local context may be poorly understood. Country differences that can affect marketing include understanding the retail distribution channels, the competitive set, local regulations, media environment, and potentially many other factors.

A moderator who is not a local will have to take the time to explore references that are not known or understood. If someone in one of my focus groups makes reference to “the red rocket,” CRA, double-double, 967-eleven-eleven, or two-four, I will know right away what they are talking about, even if it is being used as a metaphor for something else. (Translation: Toronto subway, federal income tax agency, a kind of coffee order at Tim Horton’s, how to order a pizza, and a case of beer) Only a local moderator will know such things. That’s what it means to be “local,” not just to a city, but to a region or a country.

Using a local researcher


Making decisions about where best to field a project, or what criteria to include in recruiting screeners are all better handled by a knowledgeable local. A recruiter’s expertise is in finding the specified people, not in looking at objectives and advising what to specify.

A local researcher will have a good idea of what a project is going to cost to conduct in their own market, regardless of the methodology used. They will easily be able to navigate the dozens of decisions that must be made to formulate a field plan.

A local research consultant will already know some of the competitive dynamics in your category for their country. This could include things as arcane as knowing about government subsidies for certain types of home renovations. Or knowing how health insurance works; knowing what regions are suffering higher unemployment; knowing where specific skills or industries are clustered. Or understanding the basic structure of financial regulations that govern banking or electronic payments.

We could make a long list of these factors. Not only can your local researcher explain these factors to you as a client, but they can take these factors into account in designing the research, actually conducting the fieldwork, and in making their recommendations.


If you think you want the lead researcher on the project to directly observe all the fieldwork, you will incur some additional travel expenses or the cost of live-streaming the groups. The additional time to brief, manage and debrief local professionals will also take time, and therefore create expenses.

Working with an unknown local resource can cause worry that the quality of the work may not be what you are used to. Not just the plan, or the actual fieldwork, but also the recommendations made.

Deciding which way to go

Researchers enjoy the chance to conduct groups in another country, and if the language is the same, this may seem like an easy option. If your researcher has category knowledge that is not easily learned, or located, you may feel this is a fair compromise.

I have conducted research with business people in other countries, usually using a voice+web approach. I work hard to brief myself about their local environment in advance, but despite these efforts, things continually come up that require some explanation.

Unless you have a good reason not to use a local moderator, you should go local. Work with someone who is deeply immersed in the region and culture of your target customer. You will get stronger actionable recommendations that take into account all the regional factors.

You can get the best of both worlds if you work with a team that has trusted local market resources in many areas. You can have all the strengths of having a local moderator, without any uncertainties about the quality of the work.