Online Communities – A Moderator’s Perspective

Laura James, research executive, provides a young researcher’s view on the power of online communities.

Market research online communities (MROCs) are feted for how they are time effective, cost-effective as well as fantastic for reaching geographically dispersed audiences. Feel free to check Mustard’s earlier blog on the benefits of communities immortalised in song.

As a young researcher 18 months into my career, I have now had exposure to a broad array of qualitative and quantitative projects. But as aquallie” at heart, my soft spot for online communities has continued to grow. I have worked on several “pop-up” (short-term) communities and have recently ventured into longitudinal communities too. Here are ten things I have learnt so far…

1. A window into people’s homes:

Talking to people through devices (be it a mobile, tablet, laptop or desktop computer) means we are virtually in the kitchen, lounges and sometimes bathrooms and bedrooms of our respondents. The proportion of people that supply photo content without even being asked to (for example, when introducing themselves or explaining purchase behaviour) is astonishing. In doing so, many are also playful with their content, too. This not only gives us richer detail and greater understanding of our respondents, it also helps to build a good rapport from the outset.

2. Respondents happily invite you in:

Communities help us to utilise the ‘internet generation’ to our advantage – people who may avoid eye contact on the bus with that person they vaguely know (oh, the horror!) are willing to invite you into their home via a screen.  This little window into their world helps you to start the journey to understanding the intricacies behind their thoughts, behaviours and opinions.

3. Becoming the ‘invisible friend’:

Also astonishing is how quickly the rapport builds between community respondents and moderators (and that goes both ways!). The beautiful thing about communities is that it gives us moderators the time and freedom to have a real, unrushed human conversation. We can take time to ask respondents how they are, what they’re up to, if they’ve taken any more cute selfies with their dog. It would be wonderful if we could always engage with respondents like this, but when we’re time-poor (say when running a group or a depth) we often have to ‘cut to the chase’ pretty quickly. But when it comes down to the ‘nitty gritty’ within a community, our respondents are already sufficiently relaxed to give the most open and honest responses. This is especially crucial when we have to broach more sensitive topics.

Online communities from the moderator perspective
4. Answering the critical questions we didn’t think to ask

Our research design processes are as robust as they come. That said; there are occasions when both client and agency might be considered to have ‘missed the point’ from the research respondents’ perspective. The benefit of online qualitative research is how respondents can guide us (and our clients) to the right answer to questions we might not have thought relevant to ask. Communities are perfect for this – providing us all with thinking time and the chance to dig deeper. With this in mind…

5. Moderate on instinct and never be a slave to the topic guide

A discussion guide is a crucial component of the research process – discussing ideas with the team, sharing iterations with the client to ensure that the flow is right and all the crucial questions are included. This process is much the same regardless of methodology. But sometimes when you’re moderating a community, a respondent may say something that sets you off in a different direction. If someone is offering you something new or unexpected, use your researcher intuition and follow-up! It may offer critical insight – and even if it is out of scope, it demonstrates to the respondents that you’re listening and interested in what they have to say.

6. Equal contribution opportunities:

Getting a ‘traditional’ group together in the same room can be a lot of fun, but as a moderator I am always acutely aware that some people may try to dominate a conversation, whereas others may have a head full of ideas, but sit silently, overwhelmed by the situation. As moderators, we have various tools to overcome these challenges in the moment, but communities offer the ultimate solution to this potential problem. All can contribute equally, often to the point where…

Online communities from the moderator perspective 2
7. Respondents become moderators!

Due to the open and collaborative nature of the community, respondents often reply to each other’s posts if they wish and, thanks to the platform’s familiar layout and functionality, they often do. Many times recently, I’ve logged onto a community with a brew in hand to see respondents doing my job for me – asking relevant research questions without realising as they are so engrossed in (and passionate about!) the content. Should our clients not want this level of interaction, this feature can be toggled on and off, so for more sensitive topics we can also offer privacy and anonymity. Refreshingly, however, the cooperative nature of the community means that the vast majority are happy to share and exchange views.

8. It really does become a community in every sense:

I often feel a little sadness when a community finishes – even the shortest 2-3 week pop-up communities! I’m sad because the relationships we build have to come to a close eventually, and I miss the contributions, refreshing insights and personalities I encounter. I believe most respondents think the same – they enjoy engaging with us – some to the extent which I’ve received many lovely emails asking for communities to be extended, or asking me to contact them if we ever conduct a similar community.  People genuinely like being able to log on every day and share thoughts in a safe space with people of a shared interest. This is even more evident in longer communities, where we have a ‘discussion lounge’ – a place where respondents can chat about anything and everything. Offering different formats to contribute within helps to drive engagement – so when new topics or discussions are launched – responses are often instantaneous.

9. Written responses allow time for well-thought, considered responses and reflection:

Have you ever been in a discussion, meeting or argument (I mean, debate!) where an anecdote, perspective or an answer is at the tip of your tongue but you just can’t find the words to express it? And then a couple of hours later you’re at home watching television or taking a bath and the perfect answer is suddenly crystal clear? Tough luck, the ship has sailed! Except for communities, where respondents are given ample time and opportunity to sit and think through their responses. Should they want to (and they often do!) they can keep adding and expanding to them. That means we can keep continuing the conversation and gain more insight – rather than having focus group respondents tut to themselves on the drive home at the moment when the perfect response pings into their brain!

10. We can keep adding to and adapting content:

The online community approach allows us to be more responsive and reactive in the tools we offer to respondents. We can think on our feet and create engaging content for our respondents to get involved in. Website deepdive? No problem. Heat map exercise? Easy peasy. Quick poll? You get the idea. And especially in the case of long-term communities – if your client has new content they want to quickly test, we can get new mini-topics up in the space of a few hours. For the respondents, this is just another opportunity to chat, but for us it’s unleashing deeper insight more speedily than we could ever achieve using other methods. This results in engaged and valued respondents, very happy moderators and delighted clients. So what’s not to love?

To find out more about our online community experience or to discuss how we can help you create memorable community moments in 2019, please call Anthony Shephard-Williams at Mustard on 0161 235 5270 or email