How Moderation Leads to Customer Inspired Innovation via Online Communities: Part 1

At KLC, we offer numerous solutions to address the research needs of our clients via online research communities. We try to lean into methodologies that best match whatever business problem needs solving, but because these communities are qualitative in nature, we often run studies that rely on open ended consumer feedback. We believe that these types of open-ended methodologies provide deeper insight into the minds of consumers and provide the best solutions to our clients. We know that qualitative research, on the surface, seems counter-intuitive to the way businesses react and interact with consumers. On a daily basis, a business that provides a good or service has a predominantly transactional relationship with its customers. Customers are the end goal, the final sale, the metric by which that business lives to die another day. Before purchase, customers are communicated to with the goal of conversion.

After all, if they’re not customers, they’re potential customers.

So, when a business has a business problem that needs solving, or some unknown factor is influencing the purchasing behavior of consumers at large, they are quick to grab at whatever they can to find an answer. They’ll analyze the product, the packaging, the aisle the product sits in, the shelf, the price, and come up with some theory or another before doing consumer research to confirm this theory. Most often, businesses rely on surveys for most of their problems, and for that, they can be commended, as reaching out to your customer base to solve a business problem is a logical option. However, surveys may not provide the depth and granularity necessary to solve this problem.

Instead, we often recommend a more open-ended approach to our clients, as it can be the best way to reach an appropriate solution. A common mistake made about consumers is how much they know. Certainly, if you ask them to solve any particular business problem without properly contextualizing it and relying on some innate business sense, they will almost certainly flounder and fail. If, instead, consumers are posed with an open-ended question that allows them to explore their own feelings as an unbiased and honest voice, they may be able to help discover the source of this business problem.

Often, collecting consumer data in a non-linear fashion flies in the face of the immediacy of the business problem that needs solving. Clients might suppose that the most direct question would receive the most direct answer, and with that information, they’ll be able to run straight to the solution. The trouble is, people don’t often know what they know, but they do know what they don’t know. Every consumer has a subset of knowledge that allows them to perceive your good or service in a million different ways depending upon an untold number of personal circumstances. People live, they act, they do. Most often, they don’t think about the products or services they’re consuming because they’re too busy consuming them. This, however silly as it sounds, is precisely what we do to provide businesses the answers they need to their problems.

The main reason for this is that consumers who know very little about the particular details of a given product or service and its situation within a business context are able to more clearly evaluate it, and whatever our client’s might be, objectively. Often, when seeking a solution, we become engrossed in minutiae. Extraneous and seemingly consequential details build and build until they surmount to grander questions than their molehill height deserves. Internal teams also tend to suppose and theorize past the point of reason because they are, simply put, being paid to do so. Some problems are complicated, but some problems are not. We help our clients realize that their customers can help to easily discern which is which when posed a qualitative research question.

From these open questions, we are seeking not only a truthful response but the rationale behind the response. Therein lies the motivating factor which dictates consumer action. This is useful to us in several ways. The first of which is explanatory. Once a consumer’s motivation is derived from their response, we are able to understand and identify the mechanism or mechanisms that propel them into motion. From here, we can use this underlying motivation to ascertain the match between purported motivations and this true driving force. This information enables us as researchers to compare internal perceptions and theories with reality and gauge not only our client’s existing knowledge of their consumer consideration set, but also their existing knowledge of the product or service’s intrinsic or extrinsic value to current and potential customers. These motivations confirm or refute pre-established biases of our client’s internal stakeholders to help create a cache of verifiable consumer fact and fiction that can be used to solve their current business problems, if not at least to guide future consumer-driven marketing and product development efforts.

 It’s worth addressing that some questions, while open ended, may yield seemingly unfruitful results. One-word answers or curt unceremonious ripostes to questions are often discounted and discarded, considered disreputable or unusable. However disadvantageous these replies may seem, they do offer additional insight into consumer temperament. Though the brevity of consumer responses to open ended questions are often the result of misunderstanding of the depth of response required, it is sometimes an indicator of something more.

As well-practiced researchers, once we rule out the potential for misunderstanding or misreading, we recognize that affected disinterest or outright disdain is very telling, and short, pointed responses can be a genuine reaction to the subject matter in question. Consumers, when faced with an uncomfortable or infuriating subject may fail to express themselves with verbosity as a result of an underlying motivation. Frustration with a product or service may vent itself under these circumstances where an otherwise innocuous question yields a much more passionate response. We see this often with companies with poor customer satisfaction and is yet another way in which the most can be gotten from qualitative questions.

This is all to elaborate on the value offered by the broad, open-ended nature of qualitative research that we provide without focusing on the primary advantage of a moderated discussion: the follow up. As extraordinary as ordinary consumer behavior is, following up with appropriate moderation in qualitative discussions will yield incredible amounts of insights into consumer behavior that will help to solve most business problems.

Ideally, a well-crafted question will elicit a satisfactory response wherein a consumer will explicitly elucidate on all of their intentions in a neat soundbite ready for internal consumption. More likely than not, however, they will give a less than thorough answer to an open-ended question, not out of laziness, but out of an attitude of sincere abstraction. After all, they don’t know the depth of your interest in their response and what precisely that response will be helping you to do. Thus, a moderator must ask follow up questions to help them along and tease out the underlying motivations that are so valuable to our cause.

Ideally, prior to the start of the research, its purpose is well-established and the parameters of the depth of the discussion are decided. We establish a specific issue that must be addressed with each and every question and follow ups. With this in mind, there are several high-level aspects of moderation that we diligently attend: non-leading questions, avoiding bias, timeliness, honesty, and focus.

Asking non-leading questions of respondents is paramount to ensure the validity of consumer feedback. It’s very easy to suppose things when crafting follow up questions and guess at the motivations by behind a particular response, especially when considering the background of the research to begin with. It’s especially important to avoid these presumptions or impulses to hone in on the true meaning of responses before moderating them. In doing so, an appropriate follow up question will not lead a consumer towards a perceived favorable response. As much as we’d like consumers to agree with us and our perceptions, we cannot push them towards logical conclusions that are not their own.

To that end, effective moderation avoids bias. When moderating, we always consider the context of a consumer’s response and their preexisting knowledge, or lack thereof, in order to properly respond to their original answer. Because a people have a certain predisposition towards a specific outcome that they’d like to see, they often project that onto feedback they receive and may misinterpret the actual motivations behind consumer response. This is dangerous and can lead to misreporting feedback and ultimately suggestion alternative results that are false.

In order to take full advantage of consumer attention in qualitative research studies, timeliness is unbelievably important in terms of moderation. Consumer attention is difficult to hold onto, as it is inevitably wrested away by any number of things in their personal lives. This makes moderation difficult as part of a research study to begin with and means that the timeliness of follow up questions are doubly important. Consumers cannot be expected to return to questions that they answered days and days before. Not only is it unwieldy to have them return to a study after significant periods of time have passed, but they likely won’t be able to contribute in any significant way, as they will have forgotten their stance or opinions on what they were asked. 

Honesty is an overarching litmus for consumer response. Similar to avoiding biases, consumers often presuppose what is expected of them in their response. They may evaluate the question originally posed and conclude that a specific type of response is preferable and share it regardless of its truth. Consumers are incentivized in research settings to be a “good” respondent. They wrongly assume that they are paid based on the “quality” of their responses. Knowing this, follow up questions should seek to dispel those presuppositions and ask respondents to focus on their real-life experiences and opinions. Honest answers may not be neat and tidy. They may require several follow up questions to understand the core motivations behind a consumer’s opinion or actions. This is, nevertheless, an important part of moderating that we deal with regularly because face-value does not indicate true value, and in looking for the right answer, we cannot expect consumers with no real knowledge or understanding of a company’s business problems to succinctly address them without making considerable assumptions.

Regardless of situation, there will be extraneous details in consumer responses. There will be false leads or misunderstandings due to language or grammatical errors. Despite these distractions, good moderating is focused moderating. Consumers may surprise with their surface-level insights, but their underlying motivations are most valuable, and as such, we direct questions to understand what drives action. Though not always perceptible to consumers, something impels them to move, to buy, to click an ad and we carefully narrow the field of questioning to details of actual import. Moderating means asking the right questions to help consumers realize what that is and voice those reasons. Focusing on these motivations means focusing on problem solving and providing a consumer-oriented solution.

Additional best practices for good moderation at KLC are practical: If you can keep asking why, keep asking why. Poor or short responses to open ended questions that don’t cut it are frustrating, but moderating means going further and asking consumers to consider themselves, their thoughts, and their opinions. If they haven’t answered why, they need to. That said, sometimes there are reasons for the way consumers answer questions. Asking them to analyze their internal perceptions helps us to allow them to realize the truth about their actions.

Following through via moderation is difficult, but incredibly worthwhile. It allows us to examine consumers on a deeper level than a simple rating question and tease out value where there may initially seem to be none. Even the most tangential response may yield insight with good moderating, so long as it is measured and focused on the motivations behind that response. All action has reason, even if it’s that it was an impulse. The fact is that people do not constantly consider the implications of their actions. They do not examine themselves and wonder or question the things they like, the products or services they use, and why they continue or stop using them. People live. People do. But people generally don’t stop. They keep moving. That’s why we have a critical focus on moderation at KLC, so that all qualitative research studies we run can provide these necessary answers.

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