4 Tips to Maximize Participant Engagement During Online Discussion Board Focus Groups 

By Garnette Weber, itracks COO and Co-founder

 Achieving active, continuous, and quality participation from your online discussion board participants is essential to receiving quality research results, and highly engaged participants are not a given! Especially in these days of increased digital burnout, it’s important to do everything you can to encourage your participants to be active contributors. Participant engagement starts with choosing the right participants, but is also heavily affected by moderation actions within the study itself. Here are a few tips that you can use in your next discussion board project to enhance engagement and ensure your project succeeds. 

1. Create interesting tasks that meet participants’ expectations. 

 Participants are more likely to take part in tasks that:

  • meet (but do not exceed) the time frame promised 
  • are presented through an interesting variety of activities, 
  • and are easy to understand. 

 It is important to respect the time requirements for study completion, staying as close as possible to the time of participation agreed at the time of recruitment, or else you risk losing the interest of your participants. If participants are told that they need to partake for 30 minutes a day, the tasks should be adapted to the specified time to avoid participant burnout, or a negative outlook towards the project. Tasks that last much shorter or longer might make participants feel like they have been lied to, that the work isn’t important, or that they are not valued – all things you want to avoid! 

 Additionally, to increase motivation and engagement, tasks should be as varied and entertaining as possible. If you can make your participants look forward to participating in your study each day, then you know that you’ve done something right! Try incorporating video responses, polls, games, and visual exercises to mix things up.  

 Lastly, because discussion boards are asynchronous and you may not always be logged in to answer questions at the same time as the participants, the activities should include clear instructions. Confused participants may not be able to provide the quality of responses you are looking for, and may sometimes be reluctant to contact a moderator for help. What is clear to the researcher will not always be clear to someone who is not regularly participating in research studies, so err on the side of caution and don’t worry about over-explaining.

2. Actively participate in the study. 

 The more active a moderator is in a study, the more comfortable the participants will become. An active moderator will demonstrate to participants that you are an approachable person if they have questions, and increase trust, making them more likely to share deeper insights.  

You can encourage participant engagement through leading by example. Here at itracks, we were curious about just how much a moderator’s participation could affect participant engagement in discussion boards, so we conducted a study of our own. We discovered that moderators who engage proactively will generate 44% more inter-participant responses and participant-moderator responses than those who do little-to-no activity of their own. Moderators can actively take part in their studies by  

  • responding early and often,  
  • probing effectively and  
  • notifying participants when they are logged into the research platform.  

 Ideally, each participant should receive at least one moderator response with a notification per day in order to get them to respond and see the evolving conversation. Responses can be probes asking for follow ups to gain clarity, or even a quick comment to acknowledge what they have said and that their opinion has value. 

Some online discussion board mobile apps (like itracks Board) have notification capabilities letting users know when someone has commented on their post, allowing them to enter the app and immediately engage in the discussion, just like they do on other social media platforms. 

3. Make the participants feel valued and welcome.

The information your participants provide is essential to making your study great, and for that reason it is essential that your participants know that their opinions are valued! Moderators should demonstrate to them that the community is a relaxed and safe environment for them to honestly share their opinions. The moderator oversees this through their own participation, as well as by monitoring the exchanges between participants throughout the study to ensure communications are respectful. Some digital qualitative platforms such as the itracks Board allow comments to be made private, or removed by moderators at any time if they are deemed not to contribute to a welcoming online environment.

4. Provide a proper incentive. 

While research can be a very fulfilling experience in itself, it remains true that the most motivating part of engaging in research for some participants is the incentive. Apart from emotionally charged topics, or research that is deemed important for personal reasons, the incentive can be a major factor influencing the degree to which participants complete the study. Incentives will vary by project type and country, and may be geared towards the target participant group.  The amount paid (and method of payment) should be communicated during the recruitment process and can be mentioned in order to re-engage with lapsed participants. It is also good to mention the payment method and incentive amount to participants as soon as they complete the study, and distribute the incentives as soon as possible after the study ends. Incentives that are awarded quickly will make happy participants, and encourages quality responses if they decide to take part in future studies. 

With a little effort and a lot of openness and authenticity, you can take your next online discussion board to the next level with increased participant engagement. And don’t be afraid to take risks! The best, most surprising outcomes often come out of trying something new. Moderation is an art, and creativity is heavily rewarded.

Have questions? Contact us here, and we’d be happy to chat about getting you started with online qualitative research!

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