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Online Moderation: Engaging with People, Not Sea-Monkeys

by Matthew Yapchaian

Sylver Consulting has been moderating online communities for seven years now. In that time, we’ve learned a thing or two about what an online community is vs. what it is not. We’ve also gained some practical tips on what it takes to effectively moderate an online community in order to yield rich insights into the members and/or topic of that community.

First things first … you need to appreciate your participants as people, not view them as passive Sea-Monkeys. Successful moderation, in my opinion, is more than asking questions, assigning exercises, or managing people. It is about creating engagement. Specifically, it’s fostering sustained engagement over time that facilitates the rich two-way learning experience possible within an online community. How to foster sustained engagement within a community is what I’d like to cover in this post.

In my opinion, online community moderators must connect with participants on two levels: as a group and one-on-one. When there is a shared sense of experience and learning occurring, participants feel more connected to the moderator. In these cases, participants tend not only to stay engaged for the full duration of the project (usually a few days to months at a time), but they also give more from an insights perspective during their moments of study participation.

Strong connections between moderators and participants breed trust and empathy. Trust and empathy foster more in-depth conversation around the topic at hand, and hence result in deeper insights for Sylver’s clients. When trust and empathy are at the foundation of the participant-moderator relationship, participants demonstrate a proactive effort to sustain their participation in your study. It’s really that simple!

So, how do I develop trust and empathy with participants? I start the online community with a light-hearted introduction exercise. This exercise is designed so that a slice of a participant’s individuality is revealed: a passionate Broncos fan, a dad that never misses his young daughter’s soccer matches, the woman who loves eating sunflower seeds with her feet on the dashboard during road trips, etc. These seemingly small details matter, as empathy and trust begin here.

This introduction exercise is not about being chatty with participants. Rather, this seemingly inconsequential introduction question is the first step to becoming relatable as a moderator to my participants. I am signaling to them, via this question, that I am genuinely interested in learning about them as individuals. The two-way part of the conversation gets sparked when I share a bit about myself and react—with genuine interest—to what they have shared about themselves. (As a Patriots fan, some years are better than others to speak with Broncos fans.)

Introduction questions change, but they are never the topic of the study. Most of our online communities begin on a Monday. Sometimes, as a first question, I will share an anecdote from my weekend and ask participants to describe something they did over the weekend that excited them. This is a simple introduction exercise that establishes a personal connection between the participant and me, and is an opportunity for participants to familiarize themselves with the basics of a particular online platform.

Throughout the study, I seek to be open, curious, and to consciously ask probing questions. Moderating online qualitative research appeals to me on a deeply personal level because it is an opportunity to meet and engage with interesting people that I may not encounter in my everyday personal life. This is especially true when I interact with people that live lives very different from my own. My moderation approach is driven by empathy for individual participants and a desire to broaden my own perspective on the topic overall. This approach is especially helpful with participants that may hold views that are seen, in some cases, as “extreme” or “radical.” .

For example, we recently completed a study on the US education system. A participant in that study expressed very strong opinions on standardized tests and the government. To many, her thoughts would have been polarizing. Some less experienced online moderators might have discounted her view as “radical,” and thus less worthy of consideration from an insights perspective. I, on the other hand, was curious to understand the root of her views so I asked her to help me understand her perspective. I took the time to really listen and hear her explanation. She revealed a wealth of information in that explanation that helped to both ground her responses and provide context for her beliefs. Not only did I, as a moderator, learn about more about this particular individual and that category of thought around the US education system, but also this knowledge and context supported me, as a moderator, to ask more focused probing questions of the other participants in the study. In essence, this participant helped me to get more insight from the whole study because I was willing to be open and curious.

While the participant with the “radical views” acknowledged openly that we “probably have different opinions” on the topic, she appreciated my genuine and non-judgmental openness to her views. Because of my openness and curiosity, we were two very different people that quickly became relatable. She was also one of the most engaged participants throughout the study because of the connection facilitated through this open and curious dialogue!

In conclusion, electing a moderator for your online community that has a strong sense of empathy and respect for participants is essential. More engaged participants generate more robust results.

So, the next time that you are inquiring about a project that involves online moderation, ask to speak to one of us. If I am the moderator, I will be happy to discuss past experiences with online communities and my approach to your community and project. Until then, go Pats!

  • Online communities
  • MROCs
  • Online moderation
  • Qualitative moderation
  • Moderation
  • Online qual
  • Online qualitative
  • Participant engagement
  • Market research
  • Participant experience

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