How to Manage and Moderate Asynchronous Focus Groups

Emily James

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Paul Hudson

    Since online focus groups have been the main go-to qualitative research method for a number of years now, there are a number of moderation and management tactics created and honed by insight experts. But what first comes to mind when we hear the term ‘online focus group’, the gathering together in real-time with a moderator and a few respondents is actually only one version of a focus group - the synchronous version.

    There is another version of a focus group that provides a lot of opportunity for deep insight generation at times convenient for everyone - that is the asynchronous focus group. An asynchronous focus group is a semi-structured group discussion, conducted through methods and tools that allow for data collection to take place over a longer time frame. These take place in forum-type online environments, where pre-determined questions are posed and participants can answer through text or uploaded video or audio answers. These discussions take place through comment threads and are available for stakeholders to observe throughout the longer duration of the focus group.

    The Advantages of Asynchronous Focus Groups

    The purpose of asynchronous focus groups is exactly the same as traditional synchronous focus groups, to facilitate thought-provoking conversations and discussions on a question, product or concept, all in the name of insight generation. However, asynchronous focus groups have a few different advantages and disadvantages to traditional synchronous focus groups.

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    Asynchronous focus groups facilitate great thought-provoking conversations - but how can insight experts manage and moderate these focus groups for maximum impact?

    If synchronous focus groups take place in real-time within an hour or an hour and a half of a day, then asynchronous focus groups take place over the course of hours, days, or even weeks depending on the level of depth and conversation insight teams need. The one aspect of synchronous focus groups that is a considerable challenge today is getting the relevant people all in the same space (whether online or in-person) all at the same time. This challenge is what asynchronous focus groups remedy. 

    Asynchronous focus groups can be conducted on tools such as FlexMR’s Question BoardMR to great effect, with questions and topics able to be discussed for a prolonged period of time, allowing for more participants to weigh in on the conversation at their own time and pace. These asynchronous focus groups also are able to contain more participants than in-person or online focus groups, as every participant can contribute to the conversation at their own time and pace from whatever location they desire as long as they have access to a laptop, PC, tablet or smartphone. Other advantages include, but are not limited to:

    • Increased anonymity like in chat-based synchronous focus groups
    • More time to obtain a better depth of insights, deeper nuances of opinions and experiences
    • Facilitates multiple conversations to happen at the same time through the comment threads
    • Facilitates multiple mediums of response as we can ask respondents to share pics/videos, etc. 
    • Increases agility in qual research as insight teams can analyse as they moderate and share observations as they happen with stakeholders 

    Management and Moderation

    Now that a solid understanding has been established on the purpose and advantages of using an asynchronous focus group for qualitative research experiences, the moderation and management techniques usually applied by insight experts are easier to understand when it comes to their importance and impact.

    Set up and Management

    Managing focus groups is different to moderating focus groups. Managing the focus groups means taking care of all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into setting up the focus group and ensuring it runs smoothly, while moderation happens within the focus group itself, to ensure that the participants are engaging and responding in a way that generates truly actionable data, 

    There are a few staple management techniques for asynchronous focus groups. Firstly, when deciding how long to run it for, keep in mind that the typical optimum length is 3-5 days, which allows participants to attain the depth of conversation needed for insight experts to achieve great data and insights, and there’s still enough time for respondents to actually get online within their daily routines. 

    Secondly, understand who the respondents need to be in order to gain accurate and relevant data. If there are a couple of respondents who don’t fit the sample criteria, then the answers they provide will skew the data with its irrelevance and impact the quality of the resulting insights. 

    Thirdly, create pre-determined questions to ask respondents on the topics/concepts at hand. This is a great time to involve stakeholders within the project, as they will understand exactly what they need from research respondents. This can come in the form of a topic guide, which is used for synchronous focus groups, however, asynchronous focus group topic guides can stand to be a little looser, taking the lead from the respondents and their multiple conversations happening at the same time. It will be impossible to moderate them all, but asking questions for more information where necessary can be a great asset as opposed to leading them onto the next question.  

    Lastly, keeping stakeholders engaged throughout the process is crucial in more ways than one. Engaging stakeholders from start to finish will:

    • Ensure the relevance of the focus group through the consideration of wider business contexts and objectives
    • Increase the agility of the qualitative exercise, as stakeholders can see responses as they come in (as observers only, not moderators) and make smaller decisions in real time while the focus group is still going on. 
    • Stakeholders tend to pay more attention to the research, consumer respondents and resulting insights when involved from the very start through the connection made and sustained.

    Ongoing Group Moderation

    As mentioned earlier, this moderation happens when the focus group is occurring, but it will be different to the moderation that happens during an asynchronous focus group, mainly due to the structure. 

    An asynchronous focus group usually has the questions laid out all at the start, for example in a question board, there can be a few different boards for the same asynchronous focus group, with each board containing a linking introduction and then a question or topic for the respondents to consider outlined right at the beginning; after this introduction, there is a space below for respondents to comment their initial answer to the question, and they can respond to other respondents’ comments to carry out conversations that will reveal untold insights. 

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    There are a few important differences in the management and moderation techniques and the associated considerations employed in synchronous vs. asynchronous focus groups.

    But there needs to be some moderation to happen. Sometimes respondents aren’t as talkative as we need them to be, so asking questions to spark deeper conversation or further insights is typically necessary. Even if the conversation is flowing, there might still be a need for the moderator to intervene if arguments between respondents ensue or if the conversation is veering wildly off-topic.

    During this though, moderators need to be careful not to influence respondents and their answers - this is essential, especially for written responses over a period of time as it means thatches responses are prone to influence and questioning, but those moderators who keep it neutral and only prompt for more information rather than ask for clarification will be able to make sure the conversations stay relevant and the data is of high-quality.

    With conversations able to go deeper than synchronous live-chat focus groups due to the extra time and number of respondents available to participate, there is risk that there will be sensitive information revealed. Sensitivity training is necessary to help the moderator respond to participants well, whether that’s thanking them for their contribution or learning to recognise when the data shared is too sensitive in nature or contrary and has the potential to start arguments.

    Because these focus groups are taken across a few days, the moderation will also span this time too. Do not be tempted to switch moderators unless it’s absolutely necessary, as research bias can play an important part in the outcome of the data quality. Ensuring the same moderator has the time to comb through all the responses and discussions will work to create a successful asynchronous focus group.

    Camp InsightHub

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