5 Qualities of a Great Online Moderator

A competent moderator of an in-person focus group can be as rare as a humid day in Denver. By necessity, the great in-person moderator is an amalgam of a therapist, a priest, and kindergarten teacher. The delicate social dynamics of an in-person focus group require the lightest and deftest touch to yield valuable insight.The online focus group, however, has its own separate—and, yet, equally demanding—moderation challenges. The online moderator is more a cross of a social media maven, discerning copy editor, and skilled clinician. The almost-instant recruiting and feedback of an online group require a more dynamic skill set than the classic in-person moderator might have.

Because the different platforms can vary so wildly, it’s important to know the key differences between online and in-person focus group moderation. Below, we review some of the qualities of a great online moderator:

1. Encourages respondents to feel “social”

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You know how your Facebook friends feel almost too comfortable sharing their every thought? An online focus group that emulates the feel of a social media platform—for instance, GutCheck’s Instant Research Groups (IRGs)—is at its best when respondents feel as comfortable sharing their thoughts on a product concept as they would posting the result of their “What Cheese Are You?” Buzzfeed quiz to their Facebook feed.

A great online moderator fosters that social feeling through prompts, comments, and question language designed to make respondents feel comfortable, and to foster a feeling of community among the respondents as they engage with their fellow participants. The group may only last for a day or two, but a successful moderator can make a temporary community feel as social as the comment section on your friend’s picture of the goat cheese quiche they made.

2. Keeps a close eye on the most minute linguistic details

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The online medium allows moderators to ask questions to the group simultaneously, and consistently get answers from even the “quietest” participants, but it also puts language at the forefront. Online focus groups are more focused on verbal reactions than, for instance, body language, necessitating a keen eye from moderators for ambiguous or unclear responses. A great online moderator can pinpoint responses—negative, positive, and neutral—that require explanation to maximize their value to the client. 

“But Sarah,” you might be whispering at your computer screen, “You were an English major. Of course you think language is key to successful moderation.” That’s a fair point, Reader, but the nature of the online forum necessitates a certain focus on consumers’ words, since their physicality is not a factor of the discussion.

3. Mediates when respondents clash

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Just as respondents can sometimes approach the online focus group as they would their social newsfeed, a select few may treat the group as they would any online comment forum. That is to say, they might be total haters. Even when screening for high-quality respondents, haters, as in other areas of life, are inevitable.

Negative reactions to a concept might be fine, but aggressive or strongly negative comments to other respondents can adversely impact the group atmosphere. A discerning moderator practices good judgment to address the respondent’s behavior directly, remove offending comments, or remove them from the group entirely. A great moderator knows when to exercise which action, and when to hold off on interceding entirely.

4. Probes for information without “leading the witness”

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Leading questions are a classic market research no-no. Try asking a respondent “How delicious is this product?” and see how few talk about why the product tastes like feet (even if it totally tastes like feet). This is just as true—if not more so—for online focus groups.

The demands of real-time probes in online focus groups require a tight-rope walk between avoiding the bias of a leading question and encouraging respondents to be expansive in their comments. In online focus groups, as with any other medium, terse responses can be a concern. When probing a respondent on a brief answer, an expert online moderator can convey the need for a respondent to be more expansive without furnishing them with a prepared response. In a GutCheck IRG, such a probe might look like “Hi, [Respondent]! You mentioned that you disliked the icon on the product’s package. Could you explain what you specifically disliked in a bit more detail?”

5. Discerns between valuable insights and irrelevant discussion

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For a great online moderator, a client’s research objectives are always top-of-mind. Online focus groups typically have less of an inclination to devolve into irrelevant conversation than in-person groups because of the online group’s format of a list of set questions that respondents progress through at the same rate. So, rather than forcing respondents back into a rigid discussion format to try to complete all of the client’s key questions, online moderators can allow a broader spectrum of respondent interaction around the primary topic without the fear that it will detract from focused discussions about research objectives.

A great online moderator can discern between side discussions that might produce valuable insights and those that are simply inconsequential. Probing respondents to get at the relevant topic seed within their off-topic interaction—and, effectively, get more insight on research objectives—is a much-used tool of the expert online moderator.

It’s no small feat to master all of the skills that make for a solid online moderator. An expert online moderator can be the difference between colorful respondent feedback that goes above and beyond research objectives and lackluster comments that fall flat on the screen. 

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