6 Tips for moderating online qualitative research

Tom Woodnutt

Tom Woodnutt

Feeling Mutual

Tom Woodnutt is Founder of Feeling Mutual, the agile online and mobile qualitative research specialists. He helps clients and agencies run global studies and offers training in the space. Tom has been a Digital Skills trainer for the Association of Qualitative Researchers (AQR) and is a regular speaker at industry conferences, including the MRS, MRMW and IleX.

The skills you need to moderate online qualitative research are similar to those that you need in face-to-face, namely:

  • an appreciation of when to talk and when to listen
  • being able to encourage people to open up
  • keeping the conversation on track to answer the research objectives

However, the medium is different. You have to ask questions in a way that keeps people engaged and maximises the usefulness of their responses.

Here are six tips for moderating online qual:

1. Acknowledge everyone’s first post

You rarely have time to comment on every post. However, it’s good to at least acknowledge everyone’s first post so that they know they’re valued and that you’re listening.

2. Encourage people that make useful comments

It’s human to want attention, as a cursory look at twitter will confirm, so be aware that the act of praising someone’s comment can encourage others to try to emulate them. Use this dynamic with care, for example to encourage a high level of emotional disclosure. However, make sure you aren’t leading participants or introducing bias.

3. Actively encourage cross-fertilisation of ideas

One drawback of online group discussions is that they are not naturally as social as face-to-face. You can address this by actively encouraging people to comment on each others’ comments. Sometimes all they need is a nudge to be more social.

4. Be sensitive when appropriate

When you have hundreds of comments to read, probe and analyse it can be easy to fall into a ruthlessly automatic style as you try to process everything. Make sure you don’t lose empathy when it really matters. For example, make sure you acknowledge people who have just shared something sensitive and personal.

5. Don’t be afraid to jump between playful and serious tones

Classical qual. research training encourages the moderator to act as a neutral mediator who does not reveal much about who they are or what they think. While the pursuit of an uninfluenced conversation is still important, remember that you also need to make it an engaging, social experience. So don’t be afraid to engage in a bit of banter. Take a look at my recent post on inspiring deeper engagement in online qual for more ideas.

6. Use forced choice questions to clarify meaning

What people write is often ambiguous. Perhaps the most vital skill in online qual moderation is to get to the true meaning of what people are trying to say. If you need to clarify what someone means, give them a forced choice between two interpretations of what they have said. Make sure you also give them the option to reject those interpretations and to clarify their response further.


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