There’s a lot of talk about online research communities at the moment. At almost every event I go to people want to talk about using online communities for market research, often creating their own communities. And every week there seems to be the announcement of another brand launching such a community (this week it was the Mirror newspaper with their Mirror Mouthpiece).
It’s great to see so many brands recognising the power of online research communities. At FreshNetworks, we’ve been running online research communities for a while now (FreshMinds, our parent company is an award-winning research agency in the UK) and even wrote a paper about earlier this yea (click here to read an earlier post about this). But looking at some of the online research ‘communities’ that exist, I’m not sure all of them actually are communities, rather than networks or panels of respondents.
There are a number of characteristics that define a community and these should be present in a true online research community. Some of the most pertinent include:
About a common issue not individuals – A community is focused on a common or shared interest, issue, end point or goal; as a community member you are working with the other members to a common goal. That’s why, amongst other things, research communities are great for helping to create new ideas for products or services, having discussions on brand positioning, getting depth of understanding behind quantitative results and for deliberating. If you don’t have a common goal or purpose to the community, and a focus on, then you probably don’t have a community.
Members discuss issues with each other – In a community, members talk and form relationships with each other. This isn’t a one-way exchange from brand to consumer, nor the two-way ‘conversation’ between these two. A real community is driven by the conversations between consumers – which the brand just watches. For research, these conversations are critical – they allow you to see how your consumers talk unprompted – what issues do they raise, what language do they use?
Used for depth and breadth of qualitative comment – Because of the nature of communities, they make an ideal space to watch and lead discussions. They allow individuals to respond to questions in a thought-through manner and to review and comment on the thoughts of others. This offers a real depth and richness of qualitative comment and should be the heart of the community. It isn’t a place to just run quantitative surveys, but needs to be nurtured as you would with other qualitative techniques (like focus groups or interviews).
Allows reflection and reviewing – A community is always on. Unlike issuing people with surveys you let them respond in their own time, then go back and see what contributions they made and add further to their original thoughts when they’ve had chance to reflect a little. This kind of reasoned response, done in a way that lets you analyse how people’s thoughts have changed, is a real opportunity for research. But to get this kind of reflection and reviewing you have to create a vibrant online community where members contribute and share.
A few of the online research ‘communities’ do not make the most of these criteria. They are using the new technology to deliver an old process, rather than offering a completely new service. This is a real shame as online communities offer the chance to really revolutionise research, especially qualitative. And this is something all brands should be ceasing.
Thanks to Drew Meyers for pointing me in the direction of Small Box‘s ten tips for building an online community. A good collection of criteria which sum up some of the basics of building a community online:
Have a purpose to the community
Start with people you can have a meaningful conversation with
Be authentic and honest
Think small. Get a conversation going with 50 people rather than trying to appeal to 1,000
Be personal and greet every new member
Be an enabler and provide as many ways as possible for people to share and comment on content
Drip content to members, don’t give them all your great stuff on day one because they won’t read it
Be proactive and ban members who break house rules
Nudge, don’t push. You’re role is to help others start a conversation not to force a conversation on them
Give up control, the community will grow beyond you so let them take charge
Of these maxims, I think that the most important are to be authentic and honest and the tips which focus on being a facilitator of the community rather than somebody driving it.
It’s critical to be authentic online. Examples such as Wal-Marting across America only go to show the damage that being less than authentic online can have. If you want to truly engage people in online communities you need to be as honest with them as you expect them to be with you. Very, in other words!
From our perspective we also think that it’s critical that you aren’t driving the community just managing it. This is more about the kind of community you create than anything you actually do. A successful and rich online community would be one that creates a managed environment where members want to add content and drive the direction of the site. This is where the real difference in quality of community can be seen – bad sites will seem forced, with a moderator leading and forcing every discussion. A well managed community, on the other hand, will see the community manager encouraging participation, organising discussions and helping people feel comfortable and confident enough to contribute to and help to grow the site.
Overall these are a good set of rules that would be a great starting point for anybody looking to understand how to set up an online community. Good work!
At FreshNetworks, we work very much in Research 2.0. Our sister company, FreshMinds, has been market research agency of the year here in the UK for the last couple of years and some of our communities are specifically designed for research. It was interesting, therefore, to listen to a great presentation from Guillaume Weill at CRM Metrix on his take on what Research 2.0 is.
For Guillaume, Research 2.0 is letting brands finally converse with their customers. They talk to them (advertising) and listem (market research) but don’t actually engage with them. In fact Guillaume would say that brands talk 50 times more than they listen as global advertising spend is about 50 times the spend on market research.
To start to converse, Guillaume things that market research companies need to shift from a vertical view of the world to a horizontal one. He defines these as follows:
Quant vs Qual
Quant and Qual
Art and Science
To acheive this, Guillaume recommends that brands and market research agencies:
use the potential of online conversations to listen to their customers
analyse these conversations in a new way – allowing customers to comment on and refine others’ contributions
converse more often with their consumers, ideally leaving the conversation on all the time
This all makes sense and is similar to what we have been saying for a while and wrote in our white paper earlier this year (see post here).
So what does this all add up to? Guillaume thinks that Research 2.0 allows you to get the same quality of results but more quickly. This is where we disagree. We think that the quality and depth of insight you can get from a well managed conversation with your customers can be qualitatively different to traditional research techniques. Taking qualitative methods online can revolutionise the depth of insight you get and the ability to bring your customers inside your business.
If you want to find out how we’d do this then feel free to get in touch of course!
Forrester released a report on this issue last week (see here) and their answer is “Yes, but high costs mean that firms with big budgets lead”. This may be true and if it is then it’s more to do with the nature of using online communities for research. They mean building an ongoing relationship with a group of people than needs to be actively managed at all times. This is then available for the brand to dip into for research or to track.
The real issue here seems to be the shift from a project-based approach to research buying and running an ongoing research resource (which obviously has an ongoing cost). At FreshNetworks we think the benefits of using online communities for qualitative research are huge. We wrote our own white paper on the issue earlier this year (see post here). The depth and quality of insight you can get by building real communities with stakeholders can be incredible and the real value comes from the other benefits of building a community like this.
Traditional market research is very transactional. People answer a survey or attend a focus group. Using online research communities, brands can really engage with people. Involve them in their research, feedback to them and incentivise them not with the cash of traditional methods, but with the knowledge that their input is making a difference. Critically, and this is the really exciting bit, traditional market research depends on you know what questions you want to ask. With online communities, the community can tell you what you need to ask. And that’s probably something much more important and relevant to you!
Thanks to Outside Innovation for pointing me in the direction of a report by Matthew Lees, How Should you Manage Customer Communities? (see here)
As Lees points out, designing, deploying and then managing a customer community is a nascent science. It’s a new but burgeoning area of expertise in customer engagement and is seeing influences from marketing, consulting and market research. The people you have desiging and running a community are critical, and it’s not a role just anybody can do. They need to be good community managers and also have an ability to interact with and input to the core of the brand.
A good community manager acts as the glue between a customer community and the brand and makes sure that every party gets the most they possibly can out of the experience. It’s a tough role and one worth investing in.
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