Key Questions (and Answers) for Building Your Digital Presence

We’ve looked at how small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) can go from being virtually invisible to very much seen in our last two blog posts. Now let’s zoom in on one key aspect of this strategy for un-invisibility: building a digital presence.

We’re not just talking about having a website and a Facebook page, either. Rather, your digital presence can be best defined by how easy it is for your prospective customers to find your brand or company online. Whether you’re a start-up just dipping your toe in the digital pool, or an established company looking to expand your digital footprint — there are number of compelling reasons to grow your online presence. Starting with these.

1. Save while you sell.
Digital platforms provide a cost-effective way to reach more customers, and ultimately sell more products and/or services. Consider that the internet attracts around 5.18 billion users worldwide — accounting for 64.6% of the global population. People spend around eight hours a day doing digital activities, including researching companies.

In 2022, a whopping 98% of consumers used the internet to find information about local businesses. In other words, your customers are online. If you want to be seen by them — and sell to them — then you better be online too, and easy to find. In fact, your customers’ journey with you will often start in the digital realm.

2. Legitimacy and awareness.
Building your digital presence goes a long way toward building your credibility and brand awareness. After all, would you do business with a company that doesn’t have a website or a social media presence? Most consumers wouldn’t. The more professional, consistent, and reassuring your digital presence, the more credibility you convey and the more consumers will be aware of you.

3. More customer touchpoints.
Conventional marketing wisdom tells us that it takes an average of seven encounters with a lead before they become a customer. The more places you can be found online, the more opportunities your prospects have to encounter your brand and convert to customer.

Avoiding Online Obscurity.

Clearly, your digital presence matters. The challenge comes in measuring that presence, and moving from online obscurity to digital powerhouse. Here are some key questions to ask yourself to assist with this process.

Where Are You Now?

Determine the health of your digital presence as it is today — starting with the state of your website. Is your current site old, sluggish, confusing? Does it work on a mobile phone? Is it cluttered with annoying animations? Your website has a huge impact on how your prospects view your brand, and whether they decide to become customers.

Research shows that 85% of visitors leave a website if it’s slow to load, 73.1% bounce if it’s non-responsive (doesn’t look good on a cell phone or tablet), 61.5% jump ship due to bad navigation, and 38.5% click elsewhere if the design is outdated. So if your site isn’t up to speed or visitor expectations, you probably want to make some improvements.

You can tell whether your site is working for or against you by looking at your site traffic. Google Analytics provides insight into who’s visiting your site, where they’re coming from, what pages they’re visiting most, and how long they’re staying on specific pages — all valuable information as you determine where to invest your enhancements.

Likewise, you’ll want to take a look at any available statistics for your social media pages. Social medial platforms share insights not just about the number of people who like a photo, but how many users saw your posts, as well as how they found them. See which posts are generating the most engagement and impressions (i.e. eyeballs) so you know what’s working — and what isn’t.

While you’re taking digital inventory, be sure to include your email outreach to prospects. Start with your list: is it current? When was the last time you scrubbed it of outdated contacts or recipients who aren’t really part of your target audience? Then look at the stats for the emails you’ve been sending out, specifically the open and unsubscribe rates. If you haven’t been sending email communications in a while (or at all), you’ll want to rectify that ASAP.

Where Do You Want to Be?

What do you want your digital presence to look like? Be specific with your answers to this question. Identify the quantity of monthly visitors you’d like your website to attract, the number followers you want on your social media pages, the amount of connections you want to make on LinkedIn each quarter, the number of new prospects you want to add to your email list by the end of the year, and so on.

Along with specificity, be realistic. Don’t expect to get 1,000 new followers in one month. Instead, try breaking your goals into smaller, more do-able chunks and build from there. Once you’ve set your objectives, you can start strategizing on how to achieve them.

How Do You Get There?

To address this question, let’s take it one digital bucket at a time.

Organic (aka Free) Social Media
Given that 59.9% of the world’s internet users are also on social media, this seems like a great place to direct your digital brand expansion. Having a strong presence on social media is a cost-effective and potent way to build your credibility while extending your reach to more prospective customers.

If you — like most SMBs — have limited resources and time, you’ll probably want to focus your efforts on one or two social media platforms most frequented by your target audience. You’ll also want to make sure your social media pages are professional, well branded, and credible with complete profile information, quality graphics, and relevant content.

One thing to keep in mind when it comes to social media: it’s not all about the follower count. Fewer, more engaged users beat thousands of followers who ignore your posts, any day.

Focus instead on connecting with social media users who have an interest in the types of products and/or services you offer. Find social media communities and forums that overlap with your business and brand, and connect with people there. Build relationships with influencers who can help drive users to your social media pages. Reciprocate and engage on other users’ pages and accounts. Above all, be patient and consistent, allow connections to grow organically, and you will begin to build your presence.

Paid Digital
Supplement your organic social media activities with paid digital advertising, as budget allows. You have a lot of options when it comes to paid digital: Google search ads, social media ads, display ads, retargeting, to name a few. So if you’re new to digital advertising, try experimenting with different methods to see which delivers the best results for your money.

Whatever option you go with, make sure you’re being as targeted as possible with the audience who will be seeing your ads, how much you want to spend, as well as your goals. Perhaps you want to drive people to a specific webpage, or promote a particular product. Or maybe you want to get more people to sign up for your e-newsletter. By identifying a specific goal, you’ll be able to determine the best message, audience, and digital platform to use.

Emails can be a powerful tool for driving people to your online presence — namely, your website and social media pages. So building a good list of qualified, high-quality leads should be one of your top priorities.

There are a few ways to go about doing this. If you have information you can share with your prospects that’s of value to them (think white papers, guides, free samples or demos), then consider leveraging that as gated content on your website. Visitors share their contact information with you in exchange for accessing this free, value-added asset.

You can also add simple email contact form fields to your website, encouraging visitors to sign up for the latest news and developments. Invite people to sign up as well on your social media pages.

Once you’ve started building your list, be sure that you’re sending them emails on a consistent basis — without overwhelming them or their inboxes. Provide email content they really want and can use, rather than just self-promotional pitches, and follow best practices to keep out of spam filters and minimize unsubscriptions.

After all, much of your social media, paid digital, and email communications will be driving prospects to your website to learn more, view specific pages, and/or buy what you’re offering. So it’s of vital importance to make sure that your website reflects well on your brand, is fast and easy to navigate, provides the information your visitors seek, and delivers a great user experience.

Much of burden of that experience resides with your site’s content. Yes, content is a central component of SEO (search engine optimization) by allowing more opportunities to leverage key words that may help push your site higher on search engine rankings. But the quality of your site’s content also plays an important role in strengthening your brand, building credibility and awareness, engaging prospects and converting them into customers, and positioning you as a thought leader.

To that end, the content you develop and add to your site should be written for actual humans (ideally, your target audience) rather than for bots. It should inform your visitors, inspire them, excite them, enlighten them, entertain them, help them, make them think. In other words, your content should be of value to them. Offer them this level of content, and you can be they’ll come back for more, seek you out on social media, open and read your emails, and share your information with others.

Think Outside the Internet.

While we’ve focused on the usual digital suspects, we also encourage you to get creative. After all, SMBs are used to being resourceful and inventive when it comes to reaching their prospective customers. Look for opportunities on- as well as offline that will help build your digital presence.

Say yes to a podcast interview. Volunteer to be a guest blog post writer on another site. Offer yourself up as a subject matter expert for print and online publications within your industry. Present at conferences (virtual and in-person), and host your own webinars. The prospects who see you on these venues will also come find you online.

Just Do It.

Building your digital presence require daily vigilance — and activity. The digital world is dynamic, after all, so you must be as well. That means adding new and fresh content to your website on a regular basis, posting on your social media pages and engaging on others daily, scrubbing that list monthly, sending out emails with a sustained cadence, keeping up with your paid digital campaigns — you get the picture. Create a schedule for these activities to keep you accountable and on track. And, in the words of one brand with a mighty digital presence, just do it.

Thus concludes our series on getting seen as a small to medium-sized business. But we’re hoping the conversation is just getting started. Feel free to reach out to discuss in more detail, and let us know your thoughts.

The SMB’s Unofficial Guide to Un-Invisibility

For small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs), getting seen in a crowded digital landscape can be quite the challenge. As an SMB ourselves, we know this only too well. We also know that there are practical steps you can take to get on the path to un-invisibility. In our last blog post, we explored the advantages of niche marketing for SMBs seeking to break through the competitive clutter to connect with their ideal target audience. Now let’s take a look at some other strategies SMBs can employ to increase visibility.

As a qualitative research team that specializes in B2B, technology, healthcare, and financial industries, we have the privilege and joy of engaging with SMBs on a daily basis. In that work, we’ve seen just how hard-working, passionate, and scrappy smaller companies can be. We also know that despite those admirable qualities, SMBs face a number of common barriers that keep them out of view of their prospective audiences. The good news is, there are strategies to help you scale these barriers and be seen on the other side.

Barrier: Money (Or Lack Thereof)
As far as barriers goes, this is a big one for small to midsize enterprises. SMBs tend to have limited resources, including money, to throw at marketing campaigns. The smaller your marketing budget, the more strategic and inventive you need to be with how you spend it.

Strategy: Low Cost, High Impact
Look for the most cost-effective way to reach the most high-yield audience. One affordable marketing tool at your disposal are those satisfied clients who sing your praises and refer you to their colleagues. All you have to do is ask them. Add digital marketing and relevant, value-added content creation to your strategy, and you’ll see a greater return on your efforts and investment than wide-reaching expensive campaigns (we’re looking at you, Super Bowl ad).

Barrier: Data, Data, Everywhere
In this digital age, information overload overwhelms us all — including your audience. Getting your prospects to open your email (let alone read it) or click on your social media post can feel like an impossible task — especially when inboxes and feeds are flooded with content clamoring for attention.

Solution: Notch Your Niche
Identify, find, and connect with your niche audience — those targeted prospects who align most perfectly with your products or services — on the platforms they frequent. This laser-focused approach allows you to conserve your limited resources and direct them to efforts that will have the greatest impact. By reaching out to an audience who shares your passion and truly values what you have to offer, you’ll make genuine connections built on trust. You’ll also see your word-of-mouth grow. Read more about the power of niche marketing here.

Barrier: Who Are You?
The credibility struggle for SMBs is real. You’re out there in a crowded marketplace competing with bigger brands that have spent years (decades, even) building awareness, recognition, and loyalty. Without that name recognition, prospects are more likely to question not only who you are, but why they should trust you.

Solution: Get on the Brand Wagon
Brands aren’t just for Nike anymore. SMBs deserve — and benefit greatly — from having a strong, memorable, professionally crafted, and consistently supported brand. Along with attracting eyeballs, a compelling, uniquely-yours brand will go a long way to building visibility, trust, and loyalty.

Barrier: The Digital Marketing Maze
Cookies and algorithms and quality scores — oh my! For SMBs going it alone, navigating the digital marketing landscape is no easy matter. Digital media may not be rocket science, but it can certainly feel like it. As a result, many SMBs shy away from digital or give up on it after seeing dismal results (and a lot of wasted money and effort).

Solution: Content Is King
One cost-effective place to start your digital marketing strategy is with content generation. Bolster your website with relevant, meaningful content such as blog posts, articles, and case studies that position you as an industry authority while also boosting your search engine rankings. This content can also be repurposed for email and social media marketing, giving you something of value to email and post about. A small investment in paid social media can help increase visibility of this content as well and expand your audience.

Barrier: The Unbudging Customer Base
Small businesses typically have a small customer base — hey, you gotta start somewhere, right? Growing that base, along with customer loyalty, is hard. But it’s also essential for your organic growth. After all, the more happy customers you have, the more word will get out, and the more new prospects will find you.

Solution: Leverage Your Champions
Chances are, among your small customer base you’ll find passionate champions who are more than willing to advocate for your company. Encourage your satisfied customers to share testimonials, write reviews, and create user-generated content about their positive experience using your products or services. Cultivate your own early adopters and influencers, and let them get the word out. And of course, continue providing the exceptional level of personalized service that your customers rave about.

Invisibility Is Highly Overrated

When it comes to superpowers, invisibility doesn’t do SMBs much good. Becoming un-invisible — now that takes talent, skill, and no small amount of patience. Speaking from first-hand experience, we know it’s possible for smaller enterprises to make a big impression on their audience without spending a fortune — using a strategy that ombines word-of-mouth, niche marketing, optimized content development, and customer advocacy.

And though it may not seem like it, as a SMB you do have advantages over your larger, big-budgeted, and overly confident competitors (just ask Goliath). Your nimble size allows you to connect with your target audience on a more personalized level with greater authenticity. All you need is the right slingshot, and watch out giants.

As you can tell, small to midsized businesses are a particular passion of ours. We’d love to discuss SMB strategies for becoming un-invisible in more detail, so feel free to reach out anytime.

The Invisible SMB: Getting Seen in Today’s Crowded Digital World

With all the hoopla around artificial intelligence, today’s most precious commodity remains human attention. And it’s become a rare commodity indeed. Given the deluge of information from disparate sources, our lives have become inundated with content — all vying for our increasingly limited attention. The technology that was meant to bring us together has inadvertently driven us into information silos where we stay isolated and closed off from outside messages.

This information overload compounded by a crowded digital landscape has an especially large impact on small to medium businesses (SMBs) and the way they reach their audiences. We know: Thinkpiece is one of them.

Once upon a time, traditional TV ads were considered the best way to capture eyeballs and lots of them. While still an effective medium for some demographics, TV ads in today’s streaming and on-demand world can be easily ignored or bypassed with the tap of a finger or press of a button. Print advertising isn’t fairing much better, as digital media expands and magazine readership declines. Email — once a bastion of SMB marketing — has also lost effectiveness amid overflowing inboxes and overly aggressive spam filters.

But not to worry: there’s always social media, right? Heralded as a game-changer for SMBs, social media marketing was supposed to level the playing field for small businesses without the big-brand budgets. And maybe for a while that proved true(ish). But as the social media landscape evolved, algorithms grew increasingly cryptic, and third-party cookies appear to be on their last legs, social media has now become a pay-to-play model. And the more you pay, the more likely your target audience will see your ads. Organic reach is ostensibly gone, leaving many SMBs struggling to gain visibility without blowing up their ad budgets.

So What’s an SMB to Do?

In a word, or rather two: niche marketing. Instead of casting a wide (and often expensive) net hoping to snag a few prospects, in the process getting lost in the sea of other businesses doing exactly the same thing, savvy SMBs focus on reaching and engaging a specific, passionate audience that aligns perfectly with the products or services they offer. In the case of niche marketing, less really can be more — more targeted, more receptive, more reachable, and more likely to make the leap from prospect to paying customer.

To be effective, niche marketing requires knowing your target audience, as well as how and where to connect with them. We’ve broken it down into the following five-step guidelines.

1. Know your niche.
SMB, know thy audience. Understanding the specific interests, needs, and pain points of your target prospects is the first step. Through diligent research and analysis of current and potential customers, SMBs can pinpoint the specific niche that resonates most with their offerings.

2. Create targeted content.
Once you’ve defined your niche, now comes the task of creating content that directly caters to the interests and concerns of this specialized audience. Whether it’s insightful blog posts, engaging videos, or captivating social media content, providing value is key to winning the hearts of niche consumers.

3. Get personal with your email.
The more personalized the emails you send, the more likely you are to get a response. Start by segmenting your email list based on different niches or interests, then craft personalized email campaigns that speak directly to each segment’s specific needs. This approach leads to higher open rates, engagement, and ultimately, conversions.

4. Meet them on social media.
Instead of waiting for your target audience to come to you on social media, go out and find them there. Participating actively in social media groups and forums related to your niche can foster authentic connections. By sharing valuable insights and being genuinely helpful (rather than blowing your own horn), you’ll build relationships and grow organically within these niche communities.

5. Host niche events and webinars.
You’re an expert in your niche. So let your target prospects know it. Organizing virtual events or webinars tailored to your niche audience’s interests establishes you as an authority in your field while delivering value to those who attend. This approach also offers an excellent opportunity to engage directly with potential customers and create trust in a non-salesy environment.

Be Targeted, and Be Seen

For small enterprises with great products and services, breaking through the digital clutter can be daunting. By adopting niche marketing strategies, embracing authenticity, and delivering tailored content that leads to meaningful connections, SMBs can claim their deserved spot as industry leaders, defy the odds, and thrive in the competitive digital realm. With a niche approach, SMBs can unveil themselves from the shadows and go from invisible to indispensable.

We’d love to hear about your approach to being seen by your audience, from one SMB to another. Reach out to us anytime.

Interviewer vs. Moderator in Qualitative Research – What’s the difference and does it matter? (Spoiler: It does)

If you’re a client seeking the insights that qualitative research can provide, you probably know that having a “good moderator” is essential for your project. But what exactly makes a moderator good? What should you expect from them, and what’s the role they’ll play in your research journey? More than semantics or industry jargon, a “good moderator” can significantly impact the success of your qualitative research endeavor.

In the world of qualitative research, there are two essential roles at play: the “interviewer” and the “moderator.” Their distinction may seem subtle, but it carries profound implications for the quality and depth of insights you’ll gain. The choice between these roles isn’t just a technicality; it’s a strategic decision that shapes the entire research process and, more importantly, the value you receive as a client.

An interviewer is a research professional responsible for conducting structured interviews with participants. They follow a predetermined script, asking predefined questions to gather specific information or opinions. Interviewers often aim to obtain clear and concise responses that directly address the research objectives.

In contrast, a moderator is a facilitator of group discussions or in-depth interviews in qualitative research settings. Their role is more dynamic and flexible compared to that of an interviewer. Moderators guide conversations, encourage participant interaction, and adapt to the flow of the discussion, allowing for exploration of unanticipated insights and perspectives.

Let’s dive deeper into why understanding this distinction matters. When you engage with a qualitative research team, you trust them to guide you through a complex process and deliver meaningful insights. You expect them to possess the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate the intricacies of your project. However, the heart of the matter lies in whether they choose to wear the interviewer hat or the moderator hat for your specific needs.

So how do you know which one you need: interviewer or moderator? Here are a few guidelines to help you decide.

1. The Nature of Your Research Objectives

Your research objectives are the compass that guides the qualitative research journey. Sometimes, you need concrete answers to specific questions—answers that can be neatly summarized and acted upon. This is where an interviewer excels. They follow a structured script, ensuring that predefined questions are answered in a clear and concise manner. If your objectives involve A/B testing, concept validation, or other bounded inquiries, the interviewer’s approach may be the most effective.

On the other hand, if your research objectives are more exploratory, with a wide range of possible outcomes, a moderator may be your best choice. They are skilled in navigating uncharted territory, encouraging open-ended discussions, and uncovering insights that might not have been apparent at the outset. When you’re seeking to understand emerging trends, consumer behaviors, or the nuances of complex topics, the moderator’s approach shines.

2. The Complexity of Your Research Topic

Consider the complexity of your research topic. Some topics are straightforward, and your goal may be to gain quick insights or “color” around how people respond to a simple stimulus. In such cases, an interviewer’s structured approach can efficiently collect the data you need.

However, if your research topic is multifaceted, intricate, and requires a deep understanding of expert input or intricate reasoning, a moderator becomes invaluable. They can navigate these complexities, facilitating discussions that dig deep into the heart of the matter. Whether it’s understanding expert opinions, exploring nuanced perspectives, or unraveling intricate decision-making processes, the moderator’s expertise is geared for complex terrain.

3. The Depth of Understanding You Seek

Consider the depth of understanding you require from your qualitative research. Are you looking for practical, surface-level insights, or do you need a profound understanding of the “why” behind preferences and attitudes? If your research primarily involves making practical, immediate decisions with just a skimming interest in the “why,” an interviewer can efficiently gather the necessary data.

But if you’re after foundational insights, seeking to shape a comprehensive understanding of customer experiences and beliefs, a moderator becomes indispensable. They have the skills to engage participants in reflective, insightful discussions that delve deep into the “why” of preferences and attitudes.

Knowing the Difference Makes All the Difference

Understanding the difference between interviewers and moderators in qualitative research is about setting the stage for success, ensuring that your research objectives are met effectively, and maximizing the value you receive.

In the realm of qualitative research, recognizing the distinction between being an interviewer and being a moderator is essential. Both roles are valuable and serve different purposes. An experienced and skilled qualitative researcher understands when, why, and how to operate in one vein or the other, ensuring that the research objectives are met effectively.

Whether your research question is bounded or exploratory, straightforward or complex, practical or foundational, choosing the right approach and the appropriate guide can make all the difference in the quality and depth of insights gained. By acknowledging this subtle yet significant distinction, researchers can unlock the full potential of qualitative research, providing invaluable insights to drive decision-making and shape a better understanding of the world around us.

So, as a client, when you engage with a qualitative research team, remember that you’re not just hiring a “moderator” or an “interviewer.” You’re selecting a guide for your research journey, someone who will navigate the complexities of your project and uncover insights that drive your business forward. Understand what each role entails, consider the nature of your research objectives, the complexity of your topic, and the depth of understanding you seek. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be better equipped to collaborate effectively and ensure that every interview counts towards achieving your goals.

In our next blog post, we’ll dive deeper into the role (or should we say “roles,” because indeed there are many) of the moderator. Our quest for clarity continues…

Unveiling the Multifaceted Moderator: Navigating Qualitative Research

In our previous blog post, we explored a different approach to thinking about the definition of “interviewer” versus ‘”moderator.” Now, let’s delve deeper into the role of the “moderator” and why they are indispensable, especially from a client’s perspective.

Moderators, as defined in our last blog, assume a broad role that goes beyond asking questions and eliciting responses as dictated by a script or guide.

Indeed, moderating requires a multifaceted skillset.

So when your research requires looking for in-depth insights — the why behind what — you need someone who knows when to ask questions that aren’t on the script, and how to dig deeper for answers buried beneath the obvious. In other words: a moderator. And not just any moderator. To be truly effective, moderators must be part business advisor, part market insights generator, part psychologist. You can add brand guru and circus ringmaster to that list, as well. Let’s take a closer look at these roles, and why each one is necessary to maximize the value of your research.

Business Advisor Who Gets Your Industry

In addition to understanding the art of asking questions, a moderator should understand the client’s industry, market dynamics, and business objectives. Ideally, your moderator will have first-hand, in-the-trenches industry experience they can call on. Need someone who can talk confidently about molecular biology with a focus group of physicians? Make sure your moderator speaks the language. Along with industry-specific knowledge, it helps to have a moderator with enough business acumen to translate research outcomes into actionable strategies.

Market Insights Generator Ready to Dig Deep

More than reading questions off a script, a skilled moderator uncovers rich market insights in the answers they elicit. To do this, they employ a multitude of techniques to stimulate discussion, encourage participants to share their perspectives, and excavate insight beyond surface-level responses. They help reveal unspoken thoughts, emotions, and motivations, providing a holistic understanding of the target audience that powers better business decisions.

Psychologist and Empathetic Listener

Understanding human behavior and motivations is a core aspect of moderating. Moderators need to create a comfortable and non-judgmental environment where participants feel encouraged to express their thoughts and emotions openly. That requires having active listening skills and empathy, as well as a toolkit of psychological techniques that enable them to connect with participants and delve into their underlying attitudes and beliefs.

Brand Guru in the Room

Moderators need to have a deep understanding of the client’s brand, its values, and its positioning in the market — as well as a familiarity with the importance of branding in general. This brand fluency enables them to steer discussions towards brand-related topics and explore participants’ perceptions, associations, and experiences with the brand. This additionally allows moderators to identify gaps, strengths, and opportunities to strengthen the brand’s positioning.

Circus Ringmaster and Focus-Group Tamer

You thought we were joking about this one? Have you ever seen a focus group? A moderator worth her title knows how to facilitate and manage the complex group dynamics that, when unguided, can quickly derail focus group discussions. Moderators ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute (including that shy person in the corner), manage the group’s time effectively, and steer the conversation towards the research objectives. They also navigate potential conflicts and dominant participants while creating an atmosphere conducive to open and respectful dialogue. All that’s missing is the top hat and bullhorn.

The Moderator You’ve Been Missing

If you’ve been less than thrilled with the outcomes and insights generated from your qualitative research studies, the missing piece may very well be the moderator — or lack thereof. A moderator who has the freedom, skills, and experience to assume multiple roles beyond question-asker and answer-taker will seek out, find, and extrapolate the truly valuable insight you need to make decisions and move forward.

Can we add quick-change artist to our list? A truly skilled qualitative researcher will know when and how to switch between being a moderator and an interviewer to achieve research objectives and help move your business forward. If you’d like to dive deeper into the role of a moderator versus an interviewer and which one best meets the needs of your research study, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We love answering questions as much as asking them.

And keep a look out for our next blog post, in which we scrutinize one of moderators’ most vexing tools: the discussion guide.

Reimagining Discussion Guides in Qualitative Research: A Path to Deeper Insights

In our previous blogs, we explored the roles of “interviewers” and “moderators” in qualitative research, shedding light on their subtle but profound distinctions. Building on that foundation, let’s delve into an intriguing aspect of qualitative research: discussion guides. Are they a blessing or a curse? Well, that’s a question we’ll navigate together.

Discussion guides are often seen as essential tools to steer interviews or focus group conversations. They aim to provide structure and ensure researchers cover all the necessary topics. In theory, they’re fantastic. In practice, they can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Here’s why.

Too often, discussion guides are treated as rigid scripts, akin to structured surveys, particularly in studies that require more of an “interviewer” approach, where predefined questions are asked to gather specific information or opinions. This rigidity can hinder the natural flow of conversation between moderators and participants, preventing us from capturing the nuanced responses that are the essence of qualitative research.

The Discussion Guide, Redefined

So, does this mean we should toss discussion guides out the window and rely on spontaneity? Not quite. Instead, let’s consider a subtle shift in how we perceive discussion guides. What if we viewed them as flexible tools that guide rather than dictate conversations? What if they were references that provided guardrails to prevent veering too far off course while allowing for organic discussions?

In more exploratory studies, discussion guides can take on a different form as “topic outlines,” something that conveys the fluid nature of the moderated conversation. This shift allows for a dynamic and adaptable approach, where the guide acts as a reference point rather than a strict script.

Imagine empowering moderators to utilize their active listening skills, intuition, and adaptability to create an environment where participants express themselves freely. This shift can enhance the authenticity and richness of qualitative research, keeping it true to its core purpose: to uncover meaningful insights.

Moreover, what if we shifted our focus from meticulously crafting discussion guides to truly understanding research objectives? Rather than obsessing over what we ask, let’s emphasize why we ask it. This shift could lead to a more personalized, adaptive, and fruitful approach to qualitative research, yielding:

1. Better Goal Alignment: A deep understanding of research objectives empowers moderators to adapt their questioning techniques, delve deeper into relevant areas, and have more targeted and insightful discussions.

2. Improved Participant Engagement: With a strong grasp of research objectives, moderators can connect better with participants, creating an environment conducive to open and honest dialogue.

3. Contextualized Analysis: Moderators who understand research objectives can effectively synthesize information, identify key patterns, themes, and insights that align with research goals, resulting in more valuable outcomes.

The question now becomes: how do we make this shift from focusing on the discussion guide to fully understanding research goals? It’s simpler than you might think, and it involves a three-step process:

1. Clearly Define Research Objectives: Start by establishing well-defined research objectives in collaboration with the client. This crucial first step ensures that both parties are aligned on the purpose and desired outcomes, providing added guidance for the moderator as they structure the research and facilitate more focused and meaningful discussions.

2. Create a Research Outline: Instead of providing a rigid, script-like, full-scale discussion guide, outline the main research components or themes to be covered during the discussions. This approach offers a loose structure that guides the moderator while allowing for flexibility, exploration, and unexpected insights as the conversation naturally evolves.

3. Pretest Interviews: Consider including three to four pretest interviews to give clients a better understanding of how the moderator will conduct the actual research. This can help manage expectations and create trust by demonstrating the moderator’s understanding of the research objectives, interviewing style, and ability to adapt on-the-fly.
By embracing this approach, you pave the way for more personalized, adaptive, and fruitful qualitative research, leading to a deeper understanding of the subject matter and more valuable outcomes.

Overcoming Trust Issues

There’s another reason clients can be reluctant to relinquish control of the discussions guide: trust issues. As experienced as a moderator may be in leading discussions, they don’t always have a deep understanding of the topic that’s being discussed — especially if that topic is highly technical, complex, or specialized. In these cases, clients may feel the need to dictate the tone and language of the discussion guide — down to the last word and punctuation mark.

This is completely understandable, especially in a new and untested relationship. By maintaining tight control over the discussion guide and using it more like a script, clients can compensate for a moderators’ lack of knowledge about the topic being discussed. But again, this can end up stifling the conversation and impeding quality insight.

Letting go of this control is an exercise in trust on the part of the client. Partnering with a moderator and research team that bring a high level of understanding, ideally gleaned from first-hand experience, of the topic can help clients feel more comfortable with releasing the reins. Pretesting interviews (step three above) can also be an effective tool in building that trust.

Let Moderators Moderate

Ultimately, as researchers we should strive for that balance between providing structure and allowing for natural conversation within the research process. By recognizing the discussion guide as a flexible tool rather than a strict must-follow script, we can leverage its benefits while preserving the value of organic qualitative research.

This approach gives moderators the ability to be more attentive and responsive to the dynamics of the discussion, enabling them to probe deeper into relevant areas and follow interesting tangents that emerge naturally during the conversation. In other words, to become better moderators. And that leads to better insights.