How to get deeper insight online

How do you persuade participants to fully engage in your research if you are not in the same room as them, have never met them, and cannot see or talk to them? The distance between moderator and participant, and among participants, can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.

Well, it’s not really. Way back through time people have communicated with each other in writing. Of course, fewer letters are written nowadays, but that’s not because they are an ineffective way of expressing thoughts or emotions. In fact, one might argue that it is easier to tell someone what you really think in a letter than it is to their face.

One might also argue that it is easier to open up to someone you have not met, and will not meet, than to someone you have met. Isn’t that why face to face groups are not traditionally meant to have participants who know each other? So in the case of online qualitative research this would suggest that the distance between participants and the moderator is actually a strength rather than weakness.

Having said all this, even if we accept that there is no inherent weakness in conducting qualitative research online, the moderator still faces the issue of how to encourage participants to engage. Participants have to think, really think, and this involves time and effort.

So how do you persuade them to put in this time and effort? Well, the first thing you can do is link the level of engagement with the incentive, or payment, that you provide. But there are also three simple steps you can take in terms of how you moderate.

1. Warm up your participants
Welcome your participants as soon as they arrive. Don’t just leave them to register. They could be nervous, and never have done anything like this before. It is just the same as for face to face research. Relaxed participants are more likely to engage.

2. Set the tone
Just as you need to encourage some people not to hide in face to face groups, so you will get some participants in online qualitative research who like the idea of doing the minimum. So, right from the start, respond to participants’ posts, and engage with them. Otherwise, later in the discussion, when you want them to really open up you can find it difficult to get them to do so.

3. Manage participant interaction
Some questions may be best asked privately, rather than in a group discussion format, if they are particularly sensitive or personal. Similarly, some participants may instinctively prefer to engage with you privately rather than in a group, so it can be worthwhile ensuring that everyone knows this is an option. Of course, you may well want some interaction among participants, but it is best to think about when, where and how you want this to take place, rather than considering this to be the default.