Introduction to Moderating Online Discussion Boards
3 Top Tips for New Moderators

Making the switch from moderating an in-person focus group to moderating an online discussion board can seem a little scary at first, but there is nothing to fear! Moderating an online focus group can be just as easy and as rewarding (if not more!) as moderating in person.

There are some key things to consider regarding moderation in any environment. The moderator…

  • Should be impartial and non-judgmental,
  • Needs to have a clear understanding of the research project objectives and deliverables,
  • Needs to have the skills to facilitate dynamic discussions, and
  • Needs to be able to follow the flow of conversation and maintain order.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. When moderating an online discussion board, you don’t need to start from scratch. If you are used to moderating a traditional focus group, you can easily transfer the same skills to an online environment. Skills like generating a rapport, looking for cues to follow up on and being able to encourage participants to dig a bit deeper are all things that can be used in online qualitative research. They may require some more planning and look a little bit different than what you do in-person, but only small changes to the core aspects of what you do in-person are required to effectively moderate.

For example, in an in-person group scenario (or even online video study), a moderator will usually greet the group face-to-face, lay down some guidelines, complete housekeeping items, and then ask participants to introduce themselves. The same idea applies to an online discussion board, except the moderator includes the study details and guidelines as part of their written discussion guide, which is loaded into the Board.

Participants can be encouraged to introduce themselves via a discussion question at their own leisure (or by the deadline set by the moderator) rather than all at once like they do in a face-to-face setting. You can even have them do so via video for extra personalization to encourage rapport building within the group. As the moderator, you should then in turn respond to each participant in the study, thanking them for sharing a bit about themselves, and even share something about yourself in return to build trust. From there, you can add more warm-up activities and icebreakers to garner more participant engagement and prepare them for more challenging questions.

Make yourself approachable. Just like in an in person focus group, it is important for you as a moderator to be approachable, so participants feel comfortable opening up. Details can be added to a moderator profile, including a picture that best represents who you are to this community of users. Some moderators will add different pictures depending on their participant audience. For example, you might use a picture where you are making a “funny” face when doing research with children under 10 (and their parents), but use a very professional headshot when doing another research study with small business owners. It is important that participants see you as a person who is approachable and someone they can go to if they have questions.

Lead by example. Moderators can use video and images in their posts, making participants more likely to share videos and images in their responses. By displaying the variety of tools available on an online discussion board, participants will be more likely to recognize their usefulness and effectiveness for sharing their contributions to the group. Participants might not even realize they are “allowed” to use the tools in a discussion board without your example or express permission! You can also use examples of language in your responses that can help provide participants with a larger repertoire of words to help them better express themselves. Participants may not know how to “act” in an online discussion group, so your posts can help set the tone. If you want them to share something personal, maybe share something personal about yourself first. If you want them to speak conversationally like they would to a friend or colleague, emulate this tone in your posts.

Sometimes making the leap to the online qualitative research world can be a little daunting, but in the end it can be a fantastic and rewarding experience. How to moderate online discussion boards is not an entirely separate process from moderating face-to-face focus groups. Applying what you know to new technology can get you a long way. You have the foundations, and it is just a matter of applying them to online qualitative research.

Have any questions or want to get started on your first online discussion board?  Contact us!

Looking for more information on moderating online discussion boards? See our post on more advanced tips for maximizing participant engagement in online discussion boards.

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