Earlier this week a mentee reached out to me for advice before she moderated her first online focus group. Her timing was perfect – I’m just coming off a run of moderating 12 online groups and the contrasts between running in-person groups and online groups are still pretty fresh in my mind.
Online qualitative is the new normal for now so I thought I’d share my mentee advice here for all of you researchers new to online moderating. And for those of you who are experienced online moderators, I’m curious, what would you add or change to this list?
1. Invest in an online research platform. Sure, platforms like Zoom and BlueJeans are inexpensive, but they don’t come with tech support. And you’re going to need tech support before and during the group. I’d rather have my team focusing on research and insights rather than troubleshooting our participant’s mics and webcams.
2. Take your platform for a test drive before the groups. As the moderator, you look calm, cool, and collected (hopefully!) but you’re actually juggling a sh!tload. Eliminate some stress by test-driving the online platform before the groups. Do yourself a favor and get to know your platform inside and out beforehand, not during the groups.
3. Smaller groups work better for online. I think groups of 4-5 participants are ideal. Online focus groups can feel like they’re in slo-mo compared to in-person groups. The slight delay before everyone speaks adds up. This delay is most apparent when you’re popcorning around the group and with larger groups (5+ participants) it’s easy to lose momentum while waiting for everyone to speak.
4. Add time in your discussion guide. Along the same lines, getting through your guide is going to take more time online. If you’re retrofitting a guide you designed for an in-person group, you’re going to need to find more time to get through everything. I think a 90 minute in-person guide will take about 120 minutes tom complete online.
5. Address the coronavirus. No need to dwell here, but acknowledging and addressing this elephant in the room at the beginning of the group helps everyone get present and settled in. Thank participants for taking the time to connect despite everything that’s going on and then jump into the group discussion.
6. Cut down on your verbal cues. Remember, anytime someone speaks there’s going to be slight delay. If you’ve got an “uh-huh”, “mmm’, or some other verbal tick you’re going to want to cut down on that. Any crosstalk is going to slow the group down so replace non-essential verbal cues with non-verbal ones e.g. nodding.
7. You’re going to need to be a director. One of the downsides to online groups is the relative lack of spontaneity and there’s a detangling that’s required after multiple participants speak at once. This is will get frustrating pretty quickly if the discussion keeps getting jammed. To keep things flowing you’re going to need to direct the group and call on individual participants far more often than you would when moderating an in-person group.
8. Realize you can’t rely on some of your moderating go-tos. When I’m moderating in-person groups, I’m a big fan of the pause. I’m comfortable with waiting in silence for someone to step up and into the conversation without me re-framing or changing an important question. This doesn’t work online because participants assume my pause is actually a technical problem or glitch. Once you get a few groups under your belt, you’ll get a sense for which moderating techniques will work online and which ones won’t.
9. Expect the unexpected. With friends, families, lovers, etc. quarantined at home together, there’s bound to be disruptions. There’s going to be cameos from cats, dogs, kids, lovers, etc. that you’re going to have to roll with. Laugh and move on.
10. Have fun! Enjoy meeting, sharing, and guiding your fellow social distancing humans! I’ve found that qualitative research participants are enjoying connecting and engaging with me and their fellow participants in a far deeper way than ever before.