Expert Tips for Increasing Engagement in Your Bulletin Board Focus Group

A bulletin board focus group is a terrific online qualitative research methodology - but engagement can be a tricky thing to gauge. Here are tips for an online moderator who wants to increase engagement among participants.


A bulletin board focus group is a terrific online qualitative research methodology — if the moderator keeps participants engaged. Otherwise, it can become just a series of open-ended questions. Unfortunately, engagement in a bulletin board focus group can be a tricky thing to gauge. For starters, you can’t see your participants. Plus, you’re not necessarily interacting with your participants in real-time. So how does an online moderator turn this methodology from hum-drum to WOW?

We talked to 20|20 Founder Jim Bryson and veteran qualitative research consultant Liz Van Patten (who runs Consumer Advisory Panels) for some expert tips for engaging participants in a bulletin board focus group:

Set expectations upfront: During the qualitative recruiting process, be sure that participants understand what you expect, explains Jim. They need to know log-in expectations and participation expectations. Set the rules early and be sure they agree to them.

Don’t oversell the experience: Be real when talking up participation. “I tell them it should be engaging and entertaining,” says Liz. “The message is ‘Let’s have fun with this, but I need to hear your sincere answers.’”

Be conversational: Liz starts a bulletin board by greeting each participant individually and asking them to post something about themselves, like where they live. “Then, I’ll comment on that,” she says. Liz explains another secret is to use “I,” instead of “we” (as in the online moderator and the client). “Responses are more open and honest when I talk about myself as an individual,” she says. She also pays attention to how she speaks when having a casual conversation and tries to communicate in a similar way as an online moderator.

Model good behavior: Ideally, the discussion itself is an engaging, high involvement topic for the participants, Bryson says. However, often the moderator must take the lead and model the desired behavior for participants. This is especially important on Day 1. Create a lot of probes and generate discussion among participants. An online moderator who works hard on Day 1 will reap the benefits throughout the project.

Reward desired behavior: “It’s like training a child or a pet,” Liz says. “You reward behavior that you want to see happen and gently discourage behavior you don’t want to see.” Liz says if she wants participants to interact with each other, she’ll include it in the instructions, but that when she sees someone do it, she’ll deliberately thank them.

Be visual: Incorporating visuals into the process helps keep participants engaged. For Liz Van Patten, that means using colors and images of things like sticky notes to draw participants’ attention to certain areas. She also prefers inserting pop-up pages to writing “walls of text.”

Switch up formats: Liz suggests using different techniques to keep participants engaged over longer projects. “One week you might have them do a projective exercise, and the next week they keep a diary,” she says.

Offer proper incentives: The incentive should be relative to participant expectations, explains Bryson. Doctors expect more than consumers. Experienced panelists from the major panel providers generally expect less. Also, be sure participants understand that they receive their incentive after the discussion concludes and only if they fully participate.

Don’t ask too many questions: Liz says this is one of the biggest mistake beginner online moderators make. “If you recruit participants based on a 30-45 minute time commitment each day, you have to really deliver on that promise,” Liz says. Otherwise, she says, you can expect engagement, participation and ultimately your results to suffer. Plus, that negative experience can spread by word of mouth, thus making recruitment more of a challenge for future projects. “It’s really about earning the participants’ trust by being truthful with them,” she explains. “If they feel they can trust the moderator and the process they will be more willing to open up and share their thoughts and feelings, which is the moderator’s goal.” So how do you know how many questions you can ask in your bulletin board focus group? You should allow 2-3 minutes to respond to the average online question–3-4 minutes (or more) if you want them to read and react to other participants. For a 30-45 minute daily time commitment, that works out to 10-12 questions each day.


20|20 Technology, a division of 20|20 Research, has grown to become a worldwide leader in online qualitative research solutions. Let us know how we can help you with your next qualitative project. Visit our website at or email us. You can also reach us at 800-737-2020.

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