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Best practices for moderating online qualitative research communities

Published 22 Sep 2021 7 minute read

Online qual

Moderating asynchronous online qual can be complex and unpredictable, disorderly and demanding, but with planning and preparation, you can navigate some of the most common missteps to keep your participants fully engaged and to maximise the usefulness of their responses.

Online moderation requires both a mix of tactical and responsive engagement which distinguishes it from its offline, in-person counterpart. It requires a different set of moderation skills and techniques that involve more than interacting with participants when they complete your activities.

In this article, we have boiled down everything we have learned from our experience in to seven best practices for managing the messy middle of online qual and getting the most out of your participants in an asynchronous, online setting.

They are:

  1. Mission and purpose
  2. Put a face to a name(s). Introduce key moderators with bios, pictures, and video.
  3. Focus on the first 24-48 hours. First impressions, as always, are critical
  4. Modergreat - balancing your “when” is a skill to master
  5. Round the clock - knowing when to moderate
  6. Keeping track - you’ll need to be organized; leverage your online qual platform tools
  7. Phone a friend - ensure tech support is on call. IT issues will happen. Have a delegation plan!

These seven strategies cover the who, what, where, when, why, and how of world-class asynchronous moderation. Let’s get into the details.

If you're short on time, then skip to the end to download a handy reminder of what to do and not to do the next time you're moderating.

1: Mission and purpose

In the rush to create our project, recruit for it and begin exploring human behaviour, we often forget one key thing...we are interacting with other humans! It can be all too easy to commodify the research process and hold the view that because folks are incentivized, then that is enough to elicit detailed responses (spoiler: it isn’t).

Few people like deviating from their norm, and their participation in your program may result in stress, overthinking, or any manner of “I’m not used to this.” For example, asking participants to go out on a shopping safari to a store they have never been to before is outside of their routine and may cause some friction.

However, you will find that people are often amenable to even the most bizarre activity request if they know why you are asking them to do it.

With this in mind, step one is to set out your mission and purpose in your first communication to your participants.

Send out an email communication that not only has their access details but also has:

  • information on what the study is about
  • what you are generally trying to learn, and
  • how you might go about learning with this group (i.e. what some of the tasks might look like).

Your tone in this email is important. The email may be the first interaction they have with you. We advise that the moderator (or moderation team) write the email, with no other “cooks in the kitchen” offering advice or changes. Show some personality, avoid buttoned-down corporate niceties, and let the passion for the project shine!

2: Face to a name(s)

The next thing participants tend to want to do is explore, typically starting on your community's homepage. Most platforms offer an introduction message function—make use of this!

This is another important chance to help your participants visualise who they will be talking to, form an impression of you and begin getting comfortable with developing some rapport.

You should also write a short bio, detailing who you are. Don’t copy-paste something from 5 years ago. Try to include context related to this study. As any great qual researcher knows, you want people to share details about them and their lives with you. So, demonstrate this behaviour early and do the same!

Here are a few examples of short bios do's and don'ts:

Moderation intro-1 (1)

If you can, record and share a short video too. In today’s day and age, there are dozens of apps that make this a breeze. We're not looking for a Spielberg piece here, but again something that helps participants feel like they have met you—talk through your bio, why you’re excited about the project, and getting to meet everyone.

3: Focus on the first 24 -48 hours

The notion of “first impressions” is a theme in both #1 and #2, so for #3, we’re going to hammer it home.

Up to this point, interaction with you has been generalised or somewhat removed (which is fine). However, once they’re on the platform and intros have been delivered, when a participant interacts there should be some form of personal return (as with any conversation in general).

We have seen the most well-designed studies—full to the brim with fantastic and engaging tasks—absolutely tank because no one was actually engaging with the participants. Think about the best conversations and discussions you have had. You have them because there is a genuine flow of communication between two or more people! This is no different.

The first 24 to 48 hours are key for establishing rapport and setting the tone and expectation for your participants. You need to show them that there is someone on the other end of the screen paying attention.

Introduction tasks

Use these tasks to personally welcome every member of the community to the study and remark or build upon the personal details they have shared. If you are unsure what to write think about:

  • Greet them and welcome them personally. Don’t copy-paste responses (especially not if others can see your writing and rumble what you have done!)
  • A link between what they have said and your own experience
  • A follow up personal question that explores/builds on what they said

Ultimately you are looking to get them excited and energised about interacting with you... Build momentum early and it will keep things rolling smoothly throughout!

4: ModerGreat

Now that introductions are over and you’re in the swing of things, how do you decide when to chime in?

The UWI framework is a simple acronym. You want to keep an eye out for “UWI” messages or task responses from participants:

UWI framework (1)

Sometimes you’ll find that an answer is too insightful or brilliant to warrant a follow-up. On these occasions, you should respond with a genuine and heartfelt thank you to that participant.

On the other hand, sometimes the answer is simply adequate or requires no response. One handy trick is to make use of any emojis or quick responses a platform might have. If you have no follow-up, click one of these where you can.

It shows participants that their answers have been noted and seen, just like likes or hearts on social media. They give people that warm fuzzy feeling and encouragement to keep on trucking. 😀

5: Round the clock - know when to moderate

Here’s a common question: “If my participants can log on at any point in their day...when do I moderate?”

Our advice: check-in across the day to try and keep on top of responses as they happen. You don’t need to be glued to your machine, but you will need to be “around” all day. Replying within a few hours is also important for reinforcing that response feedback loop to participants!

An experienced moderator will generally be able to moderate 20-30 people, across three tasks per day, in around two hours per day spread across an 8-12 hour period. This will include reading the responses, engaging as per the UWI model, and maybe even doing a bit of coding or analysis.

A newer moderator may need an additional hour or two.

More complex tasking, such as ones that involve video, will also increase moderation time-per-day.

Our team will often keep the platform open in a separate window or tab, checking in periodically to prevent a build-up of messages.

Weekday timing tip

Generally, you will find that there are participants who like to log on in the morning and complete their tasks, those who pick some up at lunch and then the rest will complete in the evening.

A rough breakdown, based on our experience:

Timings moderation (1)

Weekend timing

Tasks on a Saturday get a pretty quiet response, whilst there is often a flurry of activity on a Sunday afternoon where people try and catch up or get ahead for the upcoming week. Be prepared to spend some of your weekends handling this!

Daily email updates for larger groups

Sent out near the beginning of the day, this message summarises the tasks for that day and flags any key points (recurring activities like diaries, great responses from a discussion, upcoming interviews, etc.).

This practice can keep the study top of mind for participants, and it counts as a form of engagement as well! Our teams make sure to write these in advance and schedule them to send out automatically from the platform.

Remember: individual follow-ups and engagement (read our guide) work best in all scenarios. If your group is small and intimate, an email blast like this may feel impersonal.

6: Keeping track, leverage platform tools 

You should now be facing an avalanche of responses. Once the answers and probes start flying, it can be easy to lose track of where you are and who you have spoken to.

Have a moderation plan which allows you to focus on a certain number of activities. If you're using a user-friendly platform, like Together™ then it should have a way of viewing all new posts (across activities) together. If your system doesn’t support this, try and keep your activity guide handy and aim to moderate your activities half a day behind.

Good platforms should also have handy metrics that flag participation (or lack thereof) highlighting who might need some gentle probing. Remember research is a team game, so don’t be afraid to reach out to your recruiters and get them to nudge participants. Recruiters will often have stronger relationships with participants and be able to phone or speak directly to them. This can be a powerful way of reminding them of what they signed up for as well as expectations around engagement.

You’re not the only one who may need to “keep track.” Your participants are human, and may have hectic lives outside your study! Use tools and technology to send task reminders and timing updates to your community (e.g. “Hey everyone, it is Day Four, we are halfway through the study. You should have completed… etc.”)

The platform itself may have built-in tools to facilitate the above. Make good use of them, and ensure your participants have access to instructions on how to use them too!

7: Phone a friend - ensure tech support is on call

Here’s an immutable law of technology: it doesn’t matter how well you have built a platform or a project—something will go wrong.

The platform might behave unexpectedly, or maybe there’s an issue on your end. But most of the time it will be a user issue, AKA your participant isn’t very tech-savvy.

This is not a reason to give up on them! You will want to be able to provide the support that will help them get back on track but also not drain your time (which should be focused on moderating and delivering the project).

This is where great tech support comes in. Ensure that you know to whom participants should direct technical issues or the process to get them help.

For example, we use a technical support team that can be reached via the help button in the top right corner of the platform. This allows participants to fill out a ticket with their issue and also captures tons of useful information about devices and software that our team can use to diagnose the issue. (You would be shocked at how many ‘platform problems’ are the result of browsers or devices that have not been kept up to date.)

When looking for a platform for a project, make sure you ask about technical support!


Ultimately, the thing to bear in mind with all of these best practices is this:

Your actions and community need to provide the same energy, engagement and interaction as if you were meeting and greeting these individuals in person.

If you implement the ideas in this article, you will demonstrate to your group that there is someone listening who not only is interested in what they have to say but who is also there to hold them accountable to the expectations of the study

Research is a team sport, and your role is to coach the participants into performing in the best way possible!

Download your handy checklist here.

And, good luck with your moderation. Remember if you need expert advice we're always happy to help, check out our services and support below or get in contact for a platform demo. 👇 😊

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