Online Qualitative Discussion Boards – Are They Right for Your Project?


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Online focus groups (discussion boards) have been conducted for more than 15 years and are a well-accepted and valid qualitative research approach. This tool is especially useful when the target market is spread over a wide geographic area, making live qualitative cost-prohibitive and time-consuming. When are they the right tool for your research project?

Discussions are conducted live over 3 – 7 days using a specially-designed software platform. Usually, 20 – 30 people are recruited, with around half completing all tasks. Incentive payment is pro-rated based on participation level. The moderator follows each participant’s activity level and prompts for responses as needed.

The moderator prepares a discussion guide with segments that are posted at scheduled intervals. Participants log in to read and answer the guide, comment on other participant answers, or respond to follow-up questions from the moderator. Clients can log in to follow the discussion while it is being conducted and can sent private notes to the moderator with follow-up questions or requests for clarification.

Typical activities included in online discussion boards are photo diaries, writing about an assigned task or topic, word clouds, collages, concept evaluation, and mini-polls. Respondents can participate from a computer, smartphone, or tablet, allowing them to make comments and record information while on the go.

Online focus group advantages include:

  • Increased geographic reach: participants can be located anywhere there is mobile or internet access. Since the boards usually remain open for several days, people can participate equally well from different time zones.
  • Convenience: Group participation can be higher because respondents don’t have to go to a special location or reserve a specific block of time for the discussion.
  • Detailed data: Since respondents can all post at the same time, they have a better chance of providing more in-depth responses. In addition, the moderator can address follow-up questions to the group or a single respondent.
  • Response bias reduction: Because the moderator is interacting remotely yet directly with each respondent, there is less opportunity for biases or influences that can affect answers, such as age, gender, race, personality, etc. This same level of anonymity encourages participants to be more open with their comments than they might be in a focus group room.
  • Improved client-moderator communication: Clients can observe and discuss the results internally while the discussion is conducted. Clients can provide input, guidance, and questions to the moderator without disrupting the discussion flow.
  • Reduction in non-critical expenses: Because moderator, clients, and participants all log in from their current locations, travel and some facility expenses are eliminated. In addition, the board provides a searchable/sortable text record of the discussion, eliminating the cost and time required for transcription.

Online discussion boards can have some challenges:

  • Engagement: The moderator must keep the discussion engaging to encourage full attention. It is not possible to eliminate respondent multi-tasking during an online discussion.
  • Non-verbal responses and group dynamics: Since the discussion occurs online, the moderator isn’t able to assess participant body language or voice tone. The moderator can encourage respondents to use emoticons, font variety, pictures, and gifs to more fully express feelings. The moderator can also use mini-poll questions to get a quick read on the group’s feelings on a particular discussion point. Some online platforms have begun to integrate facial coding systems that allow moderators to get a direct read on participant emotions.
  • Top-of-mind feedback: Respondents can always think about their answer or add to posts, so it’s very difficult to get true top-of-mind responses.
  • Security concerns: Because the respondents are remote, extra care must be taken to confirm that the person recruited actually meets the requirements and participates in the discussion.
  • Costs: Online discussion board providers still have to screen, recruit, and pay participants. In addition, online boards typically have a fixed hosting fee that is similar to a facility charge. Because the discussion is usually conducted over several days, the moderator can spend more hours on the board than in a regular 2-hour in-person focus group.
  • Study objectives: Participants aren’t able to interact directly with a new product, prototype, or service directly unless it is provided to each person in advance.

Online discussion boards can be a highly effective approach if appropriate for the research objectives and target group. Talk with your REPASS account team member to see if they are right for your next project.


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