What are Online Bulletin Boards?

Online bulletin boards are a qualitative research tool used to facilitate online group discussions. Users are able to login, answer questions, read and comment on other participant’s posts, and view various types of media. This asynchronous tool allows participants to login on their own schedule, often on suggested time intervals such as every 24 or 48 hours. A moderator interacts with the board by posing new or follow-up questions, encouraging participant interaction, and providing feedback on excellent posts. Online bulletin boards are a valuable qualitative research tool, but are not as common as other qualitative methods such as focus groups. How do these two qualitative tools compare, and which should you use for your research project?

Online Bulletin Boards vs Online Focus Groups

For an online focus group, individuals sign on to a video call at a specific time. Every member of the group is expected to join at the same time and participate in a guided conversation for a predetermined amount of time. Typically, these conversations last about 90 minutes.

In an online focus group, participants are able to bounce ideas off of each other in real time. However, with online bulletin boards, participants are still able to comment and interact with each other’s ideas, but they are given a longer time to craft a response. This can result in more thoughtful and meaningful contributions. The internet anonymity of an online bulletin board format also encourages quiet participants to interact to a greater extent by eliminating some of the fear of speaking in front of a group. In both online focus groups and online bulletin boards, encouraging group interaction is a key role of the moderator.

While both formats enable participants to interact with each other, focus groups typically have more inter-participant communication. This can be good or bad depending on the topic and desired data outcomes.

As focus groups and online bulletin boards are both qualitative research methods, they produce similar types of data. Both options produce usable high-quality insights that are equally transferable and to final reporting.

Advantages to Online Bulletin Boards

While both online focus groups and online bulletin boards can provide valuable insights, online bulletin boards offer the advantage of increasing participation among harder to reach populations. By removing the barrier of a specific meeting time, online bulletin boards allow for more flexible participation. Hard to reach professionals or students can check the board on their lunch break or quickly after work hours. Having loose time constraints also allows you to have participants spanning across multiple time zones.

The online format allows participants the opportunity to add photos, videos, website links or other media that in traditional focus groups they would not be able to share.

Online bulletin boards also offer the advantage of allowing for moderators to facilitate more than one board at a time. Typically, a board has 15-20 participants because a moderator does not have to be present at all times. This can allow for a quicker project timeline as many participants are able to work through the board concurrently.

Moderators are also able to program some questions on the board as public questions where everyone is able to see other’s responses, or private questions where only the participant and the moderator can see the response.  This feature allows for the best of both worlds—group think when needed, as well as a private, more interview-like environment to prevent group think where appropriate. Additionally, moderators can send private messages to participants allowing for more in-depth follow-ups on public questions.

Online bulletin boards and online focus groups both have their benefits. However, an online bulletin board may be better for some projects, while focus groups may be better for others. Consider the topics being discussed, whether you need a real-time group dynamic or not, and project timeline, to figure out which is best for your qualitative research project.