MEMO Projects – The Benefits of Mercenary Moderating

By Joel Reish, President/Founder, Next Level Research, Atlanta, GA, joel@nextlevelresearch.com

In this article, I review the benefits of taking on projects that I often call “hired-gun research” or “mercenary moderating.” Basically, these are projects where the qualitative research consultant (QRC) is asked to come in to moderate and that is pretty much it—usually it requires no involvement in the strategic development of the project, and no involvement with recruiting, facilities, screeners or travel.  The discussion guide is pretty much done for you. Any handouts or stimuli are handled by others. After the groups or interviews you might be asked to participate in a debrief call or to put together a brain-dump topline email, but typically not a report.

These types of projects are for an engagement in your local market, but they are only one small part of what is often a much larger project being conducted in multiple markets, and the clients just need a moderator for your market or country. You are part of a team of moderators, each doing the moderating in their local markets to achieve the overall, larger project.

I’m going to call these MEMO projects, for Micro Engagement Moderating Only. Not that I’m trying to coin a phrase, but simply, as far as I’m aware, there is not an actual term to describe this specific type of project. And the word “memo” is somewhat appropriate as these projects are short, not deeply involved, and have a take-care-of-it-and-done nature to them, like a memo.

I distinguish MEMO projects from true small projects—for example, if a local small business wants to do a couple of focus groups on an extremely tight budget and feels they cannot afford for me to write a report. To me, that’s different—a MEMO project involves being subcontracted by a large research firm or other intermediary for a small and fairly uninvolved role in a larger project. In fact, often there are multiple intermediaries. I once was subcontracted to do a pair of focus groups for a US-based research recruiting company, which itself was subcontracted by a large research firm, which was subcontracted by a multinational advertising agency in Europe, which was subcontracted by a global branding firm, and I think we lost count from there.

Benefits of Taking on MEMO Projects

Some qualitative researchers opt not to take MEMO projects, and they have their good reasons. I do accept such assignments, and I would like to share what I see as the benefits.

The decision to do or not to do MEMO projects is completely a personal choice. As we all like to say in our focus group intro, there is no right or wrong answer here. I also conduct full-service projects that are part of ongoing relationships with clients, and these projects are definitely different.

So why take on these MEMO projects? Here are the benefits for me:

Gain Exposure to Many Industries and Situations. MEMO projects are a great learning opportunity, and a chance to delve into industries where you previously had no experience. You benefit through exposure not only to new industries, but also more broadly to different methodologies, different strategies, different business cultures, different ways of thinking, and different styles in approaching and solving problems.

This exposure, in turn, gives you the benefit of having at least some level of industry experience that a wide range of potential clients may be looking for, allowing you to say, “yes, in fact I have done work with chemists who create polyresins used for manufacturing widgets…”.

Be Part of a Large Research Project. The projects often are part of a much larger strategic marketing, or branding or product development venture in which the research you are involved in—as large as it is overall—is only a small part of a global, multi-phase endeavor that could take multiple years to run its course. With MEMO projects, you play a much smaller part of a much larger endeavor than many QRCA members and other QRCA VIEWS readers are typically part of, so you have the chance to be exposed to the inner workings of campaigns and see this at a level and scale that you might not normally have the chance to be involved with.

This also gives you what is often a rare opportunity for qualitative researchers, the chance to actually…

Work with Other Moderators. I know a lot of qualitative researchers through QRCA, and I have the chance to work with them on volunteer projects for the association and the industry, but I hardly ever get to actually watch other moderators in action or have them watch me. With MEMO projects, I can expand my capabilities as a moderator by watching and learning from other moderators and I can benefit from their critiques of my performance.

Yet another benefit is that such large and involved projects often are run by some really high-level, freakishly smart and savvy people. Pay close attention to what you can learn from them and how your experiences are expanded by this one project.

Make Use of “In Between” Time. Being a research vendor, I find that workflow is never steady—rather, it comes in great peaks and valleys. MEMO projects can be a way to fill some of that downtime with a bit of revenue to show for it.

These projects often come up on short notice, sometimes only a few days in advance. (“Can you moderate next Monday or Tuesday?”) Therefore, they can be easier to plan into your schedule—you may not want to tie up your availability six weeks out for two MEMO focus groups, but you usually know if you will be in a lull for the rest of this week and into the next. MEMO projects allow you to make productive use of that time.

Many Small Projects Add Up to One (or More) Big Projects. As the late US Senator Everett Dirksen famously said, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” You probably won’t be earning billions doing MEMO projects, but the point is the same—MEMO projects are small but definitely represent positive revenue, and if you do several of these in a year it can add up to the same income that a larger project represents.

MEMO projects also are good for little mental exercises we all sometimes play with our income, thinking of a given payment not as part of overall general revenue, but as funding a particular goal. The goal could be business-related, such as a trip out of town to visit a client, an enhanced listing in an industry directory, or a new computer. This also could be personal, for example the holiday gift budget, the vacation fund, or even getting the house painted. MEMO projects can provide the extra income to achieve these goals.

Serenity Now! Sometimes client demands can be overwhelming, and it’s nice on occasion to have some money coming in that takes only a bit of my time without requiring me to deal with facilities and recruiters and other vendors myself. With MEMO projects there are no recruiting problems to deal with, no travel delays, and no money that has to flow through my bank account to pay out to vendors that can result in a cash flow crunch.

It is nice to be able to step into that other world, work around in it for a few days, then be on my merry way. True, I do not have a solid relationship with the end client, but by the same token I find many good reasons for a MEMO project to be a nice diversion from the usual grind. Overall, I expend less mental effort and energy, and my revenue is just the payment for my moderating services. Simple, no hassles—serenity now!

It Could Lead to Future Opportunities. In the market research business, it never hurts to get exposure to high-level players at major research, advertising, and marketing corporations. They may need someone with your skills in the future and remember working with you. They may take a new job or start their own firm and need a fresh stable of reliable providers. Even if they do not have a future need, a colleague may turn to them for a recommendation. I am always glad to meet key people in and around the research industry because I never know where that could lead.

Those Who Don’t Do MEMO Projects

Some qualitative researchers prefer to not get involved in MEMO projects. I would like to address their common reasons for avoiding such work, not to show that they are wrong by any means, but to address these issues in a way that might open their eyes to the possibilities of handling MEMO projects:

These Projects Are too Small. Usually MEMO projects are small, perhaps only a couple of focus groups or a handful of IDIs. You may not want to get involved in projects that are so small that they seem to not be worth it. But you also might find that turning downtime into productive time and extra revenue, while broadening your base of experiences, could be worth your while.

You Do Not Have Control in MEMO Projects. It would drive some QRCs crazy to be involved with a project where they do not have major input on the discussion guide or screening criteria, they may not create a report themselves that transfers all of the learnings from the research, and in fact they may not even know the ultimate research objectives or even who the end client is. These are characteristics of a MEMO project—the issue is, simply: can you accept these conditions? I already outlined several reasons why I find it beneficial to accept these conditions. You may want to consider those points next time you have an opportunity to take part in a MEMO project.

These Projects Devalue My Services. You provide full-service research and offer a broad range of skills and expertise, so why should you strip that value out of your offerings and allow clients to think of you as a commoditized, hired-gun moderator? Well again, that is your call, but I encourage you to think outside of that box and realize that MEMO projects can offer a unique set of benefits for you. Taking on such projects still allows you to offer full-service research and services to your clients who need it.

Tips for Working in MEMO Projects

As I noted earlier, MEMO projects are different from full-service research. Accordingly, you will need to adjust your behaviors and your expectations compared to full-service projects.

Be Comfortable Answering to Others. With MEMO projects, you need to adjust your style to accommodate being at the direction of others. Remember that you are part of a team, so you have to be a team player. Pay attention to things that are expected to be done one particular way—even if you feel you have a better approach, deviations can mean the findings from your groups cannot be compared directly with all of the others in the overall project.

Be Ready to Offer More. It’s easy to think that a low-involvement project means that you should only provide the minimum required services at the minimum level of effort. But, if you believe in providing above-and-beyond service, then that approach applies just as well in MEMO projects. Offer to shop for stimuli, work through a problem with the local facility, and take on tasks to ease the pressures on the primary QRC. Once for a MEMO project, I suggested on a moderator briefing conference call to use a handout for one particular segment of the discussion guide. The primary QRC liked the idea, so I offered to create the handout that all moderators would use, and she really appreciated it. It was a small thing for me to offer, but I helped her a lot and made myself more attractive as the vendor of choice next time.

Second Fiddle Doesn’t Mean Holding Your Tongue. When working with clients and intermediary agencies on MEMO projects, I tend to be more deferential with them than I normally might be. After all, I am a bit of an interloper in this situation. But that does not mean I consider my input to be valueless to the client, either—I am never afraid to freely, and if need be bluntly, express my perceptions, conclusions, or reactions. I find that clients on MEMO projects value your voice of experience and your efforts to do more than just moderate. They usually appreciate moderators who make an extra effort to contribute to the takeaways and learnings. Just remember that, at the end of the day, somebody else is in charge.

It’s about the Opportunity, Not Just the Revenue. MEMO projects are something different so they represent a learning opportunity, in so many ways. Do a lot of listening and observing the businesses and strategic issues you deal with—some QRCA VIEWS readers deal with huge, multinational, multi-pronged research projects on a regular basis, but many of us do not, and MEMO projects allow you to be exposed to business dynamics on a level you may not get much exposure to normally.


MEMO projects are not for everyone. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to subsist on a steady diet of them. But doing some occasionally gives me a broader perspective and ultimately, I feel, makes me a better moderator for all of my clients.

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