Ten tips for online qualitative research discussions

OK, so you think you are ready for your online market or social research community discussion?


You’re full of nervous anticipation, and you are excited about what’s coming next. Your expectations are high, and you have relied on your knowledge and experience to get you to this far. There is only one problem, you have left everything to the last minute, assuming the online technology will automate everything for you. But you quickly discover there are new processes to learn and participant responses are being influenced by the way you have visually presented your online discussion. You hear yourself say, “if only I had known these things before .…!”

There are no doubt advances in technology has improved the process of managing online qualitative market and social research projects, but it’s important to remember there is an inverse relationship between the time you invest in preparing for an online project and the effort required to capture the data. It is true that online qualitative research projects demand the learning of new skills and even relearning some old ones, but the time you spend preparing is rewarded ten-fold by the insights you will gather at the end of the process. Your online market or social research project will only be as good as the information you put into it. To repeat a cliché, ‘Garbage in, garbage out!’

Whether conducting online market research or evaluating the success of a national program, a clear understanding that you need to invest the time to learn the tools and become familiar with the process will ensure your online project is a success and delivers the real insights you or your client demands.

Let’s say you are moderating an online discussion over five days, or a mini community group over a few weeks, it pays to take the time to think about how your discussion topics will present online, in the web and mobile views. It’s not enough to script them up in Word or an Excel spreadsheet. You need to understand the fundamentals of usability and target your content and your imagery at the “lowest common denominator” for the target audience. Use language and imagery which is easy to understand, but is also presented in easy to read bites of information. Practice the less is more mantra of a designer, focus on the key terms which will drive discussion and trim all the verbose fat from your questions.

Pre-scripting topics into an online discussion and conducting a pilot test with your colleagues is an easy way to prepare for the real thing. Of course, nothing is set in stone and just like face to face interactions you can continue to add discussion topics to your plan as your project progresses. Some researchers and insight professionals like to structure a discussion sparsely. Others may not be comfortable writing up a five-day plan, particularly if transitioning from a traditional 90-minute face to face approach for the first time, but everyone should pilot-test an online discussion before rolling it out to panel participants.

If you have clients and stakeholders, who need to sign off on any proposed plan, show them the pilot project, but be sure to let them know that as the discussion progresses, it may be necessary to make small adjustments and additions. These “tweaks” are to accommodate any new revelations and to provide you with the flexibility to peruse new lines of enquiry. There is nothing worse than locking yourself into a discussion path before you realise you may have made an error of judgement – after all, we are all human – and you need to make a quick ninety-degree turn.  Ideally, you need the freedom to skip, add, change and extend the discussion topics as the need arises. And yes, you will still need to keep your stakeholders informed, and the best way to do this is to invite them into an online discussion as an ‘Observer’.

Setting the scene with an introduction

After putting your discussion plan together, it’s a good idea to start to think about your welcoming introduction. Why after you have complete the discussion plan? The simple answer is that if you do it first, you will find that during the planning process things change and you will need to rewrite it anyway. What do participants see when they first log into the online discussion and how do you want them to contribute? Welcome members and remind them why they are being invited to participate. Make sure you set the ground rules and expectations. For more information about inviting discussion board participants’ see the blog post: “How to invite participants to an online consumer discussion”

Top 10 tips for moderating an online qualitative discussions

  1. The first discussion topic you schedule, or manually post, should help set the scene. Build the confidence of your participants and let them become familiar with the technology and process. An easy to complete exercise will improve the level of engagement and prepare the participants for the days or weeks ahead. As a rule of thumb start with a universal topic – question or task that everyone can confidently complete. This process also helps to introduce all the participants to each other informally. Why not start by asking them to change their Alias name (anonymous boards) or perhaps upload an avatar, or post a ‘selfie’ from their tablet or laptop computer.
  2. Use images and visual representations where ever possible. Visual stimuli do improve participant attention rates and will make a “dull” topic interesting. However, make sure any visuals are relevant to the questions or tasks participants are responding. If possible, break down the discussion topic text into defined sections, dot points or sub-questions, so it facilitates easy reading.
  3.  It is important at the beginning of a new discussion topic (perhaps on a new day) to remind participants to go back and review previous questions they may have missed. You should also be able to pipe your topics. A pipe is when you set up your discussion plan so participants cannot move on to new topics until they have posted to the first topic in a plan.
  4. The first moderator comment is an opportunity to say ‘Hi” and introduce yourself to the group. Remind them who you are and what your role is. Even though you may have already said “Hi” in the discussion board’s introduction, it’s good etiquette to kick things off with a friendly greeting☺ Even though we are portraying an online version of ourselves it doesn’t mean we can drop the core rules of effective communication.
  5. Encourage participation from the beginning by regularly posting replies to individual comments and encouraging others to respond in detail. Watch for short one-line responses and ask those participants to elaborate on their comment. By maintaining a high level of conversation, you will encourage deeper ongoing engagement.
  6. Ask participants to upload images, add YouTube and phone-captured videos, link to websites or get them to select an answer on a poll. All these discussion board elements will add depth to your debate and make the experience enjoyable for the participants. “Why do I have to entertain my participants? I am paying them they should be interesting enough.” The simple answer is that cash will get them to log in each day, but if you want to get the brain juices flowing you will need to put in the effort to bring out the best in people – remember what we said about “Garbage in, garbage out?
  7. To assist with analysis, you should be able to attach moderator notes to interesting comments and assign a category to help you filter the transcripts and reports.
  8. Monitor participant activity, send reminder emails, reset passwords and send out broadcast emails summarising the weekly activity. If participants are a no-show, and it is convenient to do so, make an old fashioned phone call to confirm their ongoing participation.
  9. Congratulate individual members who are following the rules and are making significant contributions, bring others into these model conversations and invite them to reply to the posted comments. Use a combination of open (public) responses – so all participants can see the encouragement – and private messages to individuals to show genuine interest in what they have to say.
  10. Include a final discussion topic at the end of your plan with a link to an online survey. A simple poll or survey is an excellent way to capture additional insights and help you define some of the views and opinions expressed during the discussion.

Find out more about online discussion boards.

GroupQuality® is a cloud based agile market research software and service that helps you capture consumer insights, in less time, on smaller budgets and with fewer resources. If you need a fast and flexible tool to engage customers, employees and partners, to communicate, collaborate, ask questions and quickly capture the answers, then we are for you!

This article first appeared @ groupquality.com/blog

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