online moderator

Let’s Rise Beyond the Term “Moderator”

What is the fate of the independent “moderator?” I have been involved in some interesting discussions here at the QRCA Annual Conference in Las Vegas related to the health of the industry.

The prevailing view among many whom I respect is that the old days of the “focus group moderator” are quickly waning. These qualitative professionals must become qualitative research consultants (QRCs) to survive. Researchers who made quite a nice income by managing the focus group research process will find their services in diminishing demand and the pay for those services being cut drastically.

There are several trends driving this reality:

  • Technology is making the qualitative process simple and accessible to research buyers. Therefore, the premium placed on “process researchers” is quickly diminishing.
  • Technology and internet access is making some research obsolete. Some routine research projects are being abandoned to the rising MR communities, social media mining or other methods of gathering qualitative data.
  • Research budgets have tightened, forcing corporate researchers to look at new, faster and cheaper methods for even historically tried-and-true research.


The qualitative researcher must be a consultant, not a processor of focus groups. They will be hired for the value they bring to the client, not their knowledge of the focus group process. Such value will be measured in terms of:

  • Knowledge of and application of the correct qualitative methodology (online, in-person, mobile, etc) to the marketing problem.
  • Understanding of the marketing problem and how research applies to that.
  • Understanding of the research buyer’s strategy, category and business problem.
  • Insights gained from the qualitative research that adds to the buyer’s knowledge base and helps make a more informed decision.
  • Informed, applicable, actionable recommendations arising from the research.

Qualitative researchers who can deliver on this value do themselves a disservice by using the term “moderator” to describe their services. It’s time to have the Qualitative Research Consultant (QRC) front and center.

Secrets to Engaging Your Bulletin Board Focus Group

Engagement in a bulletin board focus group can be a tricky thing to gauge. For starters, you can’t see your participants. Plus, you’re not necessarily interacting with your participants in real-time. But those barriers don’t make engagement in a bulletin board focus group any less important–or impossible to achieve.

We talked with veteran qualitative research consultant Liz Van Patten, who runs Consumer Advisory Panels, to find out some of her secrets to engaging participants in a bulletin board focus group.

Manage their expectations from the beginning: Be real when talking up participation. “I tell them it should be engaging and entertaining,” Liz says, but doesn’t try to oversell the experience. “The message is ‘Let’s have fun with this, but I need to hear your sincere answers.'” She also stresses the importance of being truthful about time commitments. She says 30-45 minutes a day equals about 10-12 questions.

Remember, it’s a conversation: Liz starts a bulletin board by greeting each participant individually and asking them to post something about themselves, like where they live. “Then, I’ll comment on that,” she says. Liz explains another secret is to use “I,” instead of “we” (as in the online moderator and the client). “Responses are more open and honest when I talk about myself as an individual,” she says. She also pays attention to how she speaks when having a casual conversation and tries to communicate in a similar way as an online moderator.

Reward desired behavior: “It’s like training a child or a pet,” she says. “You reward behavior that you want to see happen and gently discourage behavior you don’t want to see.” Liz says if she wants participants to interact with each other, she’ll include it in the instructions, but that when she sees someone do it, she’ll deliberately thank them.

Be visual: Liz has found that incorporating visuals into the process helps keep participants engaged. She relies on colors and images of things like sticky notes to draw participants’ attention to certain areas, and she prefers inserting pop-up pages to writing “walls of text.”

Switch up formats: Liz suggests using different techniques to keep participants engaged over longer projects. “One week you might have them do a projective exercise, and the next week they keep a diary,” she says.

How to Engage in a Bulletin Board Focus Group

A bulletin board focus group is a terrific online qualitative research methodology if the  moderator keeps participants engaged; otherwise, it can become a series of open-ended questions. So how does an online moderator turn this methodology from hum-drum to WOW?  3 ways.

  1. Set expectations upfront. During the qualitative recruiting process, be sure that participants understand what you expect. They need to know log-in expectations and participation expectations. Set the rules early and be sure they agree to them.
  2. Create Engaging Discussions. Ideally, the discussion itself is an engaging, high involvement topic for the participants. However, often the moderator must take the lead and model the desired behavior for participants. This is especially important on Day 1.  Create a lot of probes and generate discussion among participants.  An online moderator who works hard on Day 1 will reap the benefits throughout the project.
  3. Proper Incentives. The incentive should be relative to participant expectations. Doctors expect more than consumers. Experienced panelists from the major panel providers generally expect less. Also, be sure participants understand that they receive their incentive after the discussion concludes and only if they fully participate.

Clear Objectives Key to Online Qualitative Research Success

It may seem like Market Research 101 all over again, but Bonnie Eisenfeld makes some great points in the current issue of Quirk’s about the importance of clear objectives when conducting online qualitative research (free registration required).

Online research software can help speed up the process, but that doesn’t mean you should rush through it–due diligence is still necessary to lead your project to success.

Here’s a roundup of some of her key points:

Limit your objectives: There’s no right answer to how many objectives an online qualitative research study should have, but a good gauge is time. “If an interview is too long, respondents will become fatigued, rush through their responses and/or terminate early,” Eisenfeld says. This also applies to an online focus group. Eisenfeld suggests prioritizing objectives and maybe omitting the less important ones.

Write objective-based questions: A common mistake researchers make is including questions that don’t meet any of the research objectives, which is prone to happening “when a questionnaire is heavily edited by multiple people within an organization,” she says. To avoid this mistake, Eisenfeld suggests heading each series of questions with the corresponding objective, and keeping those headers in place to help the online moderator.

Keep objectives top of mind: Research objectives aren’t just created in the beginning and met at the end. They need to be top of mind throughout the online qualitative research process. Use the objectives to guide your analysis plan, and write the report to meet the objectives.

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