In extended online projects, quite a bit of the moderating actually happens during the design phase of the project. No matter how good your online discussion guide, the group does not moderate itself any more than an in-person focus group does. Many of the same approaches are used to generate great contributions, but they are used a little differently.
Praise early and often
It is basically impossible to go overboard with praise. During the early parts of the discussion, it is a good practice to acknowledge everyone’s first post of the day.
“Hi, Amir, good to see you here. Thanks for logging in and posting.”
You also want to make particular acknowledgements of the most detailed responses on topic.
“Thanks so much for really giving me lots of detail on this topic, Naomi. These detailed answers are so helpful for me to understand the topic. EVERYONE: Please don’t worry about saying too much, I want to hear from everyone in as much detail as you can.”
The first post on a new topic area is often another time to acknowledge someone stepping in first.
“Thanks for getting us started on this topic, Andrea. I’m sure others will weigh in soon. Anyone else?”
A quick thank-you at the end of each major topic, or the end of each day, is always appreciated. Sometimes people will thank you right back, which is a good indicator that things are going well.
Building rapport – more virtual smiling
One way to build rapport is selective disclosure. This is something most good moderators do easily in person. You reveal yourself as a person, but not in a way that biases opinions. It’s tricky, in one way, because you need to be cautious about what you say.
During introductions, for example, you might acknowledge the cute puppy photo your participant posted, “What a cutie! I’m a sucker for puppies. How old is Rover now?” You probably would not say, “I love dogs, too. In fact, I compete in dog agility events with our purebred Australian Sheep Dogs.”
Find safe topics just to get people talking in the introduction phase. Use unconditional positive regard to respond to all viewpoints. If someone introduces themselves in a way that is really hard to identify with, you can still respond positively.“It’s always so great having a diversity of views, and I’m really looking forward to your contribution to the topic!”
As with all moderating, you will find your own style that works for you. We do want to encourage you to act like a real person, just as you would in person. You want people to want to help you. This is one very, very big difference from a survey. If you seem remote or too formal, that approach is likely to diminish your results.
To probe or not to probe, that is the question
You can definitely probe and ask follow-up questions. The technology has made this much easier over time. Most platforms will provide some way of flagging down a participant and asking him or her to respond to a follow-up question. For example, you can send them a message with a link to the question you are following up on.
Treat participant energy as a scarce resource
It’s a good idea to treat follow-up questions as if you have only a very limited number you can use, and you must use them only when it’s really important.
Here’s why: if participants are starting to engage with each other, they will do that less if you are constantly butting in. Not only that, but asking people to go back to something they said before is sort of like trying to rewind a conversation by hours or days — people have moved on. Their energy is now somewhere else. So you spend a lot of participant energy asking them to go back. When people do go back, their responses are often not worth the cost in energy.
If you need to post a follow-up question, try to do it as quickly as possible after the participant’s first comment on the topic. For example, the participant says something like: “Yeah, I hate that, too.” You want to say something like: “Tara, can you say what specifically you hate? Please expand on your comment a bit more.” With any luck, Tara will see your question while she is still logged in.
By making it clear what you are looking for in the way of detail, both with direct requests and with feedback, you can avoid the need for a lot of follow-up questions.
Susan Abbott is a consultant with a passion for customer insights that power new ideas. She is president of Abbott Research and Consulting, and co-founder of Think Global Qualitative, a global alliance of master qualitative researchers. She is co-author, with Jennifer Dale, of Qual-Online: The Essential Guide.
This is an excerpt from Qual-Online The Essential Guide: What Every Researcher Needs to Know about Conducting and Moderating Interviews via the Web by Jennifer Dale and Susan Abbott. Published under license from Paramount Market Publishing, Inc. This post is an edited extract from Chapter 10, Extended-Time Moderating Online.