Online vs. Face-to-face moderation

Becoming a Research Executive during a global pandemic meant that virtual meetups, zoom sessions and stay-at-home meetings, defined the world of market research to me.

Last month I was lucky enough to take part in the 2-day AQR Moderating Theory and Practice course. Through sharing screens and breakout rooms, we learnt about the principles of moderation. Many insightful points were made and discussed, but the most useful aspect that I found from this course was on the final day, when we were able to come together, face-to-face. Although many COVID-friendly measurements had to be put in place, the day ran smoothly, and it was a fantastic learning curve and eye-opener to the world of face-to-face moderation.

Having only familiarised myself with zoom to observe groups and conduct a small handful of online interviews, I couldn’t comprehend what other colleagues and some research companies ‘missed’ from their traditional moderation days. However, after spending the day in a viewing studio, sharing ideas and having first-hand experience, it all began to make sense.

The day ran a bit like this:

In groups of 5, we individually ran a 25-minute focus group session with a given group of participants (also part of the AQR moderating course), each taking it in turn to practice some of the techniques and skills we had learnt through the previous sessions. We then watched back and evaluated our performances to reflect on how we did. Not only was the verbal feedback fantastic, but the ability to witness and observe other individuals was invaluable.

Meeting people face-to-face (nostalgic I know!), sitting next to them, observing their subtle body movements and open hand gestures was an eye-opener. I loved seeing respondents’ spontaneous interactions with each other (not something that always happens on Zoom), observing the ebb and flow of their energy levels and their palpable reactions to stimulus… so many rich layers to decode and interpret. So much to learn and so much fun.

It was a joy to see how opinions bounced around the room, sparking debate and triggering fresh ideas as the discussion gained momentum. Moderating face-to-face really opened my eyes to the power of the group dynamic and allowed me to thoroughly immerse myself in the discussion, building a strong rapport with the respondents.

There is no doubt that online platforms/ rooms are a powerful and successful platform to understand and engage with consumers. Online certainly does have additional benefits too, such as sample reach and cost. Yet, as a junior researcher starting out, I’ve been energised and enlightened by the advantages of face-to-face moderation and the exposure of non-verbal communication, body language, hand gesture and undivided attention that online simply can’t replace.

What it’s shown me beyond doubt, is that online and face-to-face are very different ways of conducting research. Both successful and fulfilling. Both have their place. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Having only recently started my research journey, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to take part on the AQR Moderating Theory and Practice course. I can’t wait to put it all into practice very soon (hopefully!).