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.
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!
The UK Department of Innovation and Skills (DIUS) has recently released a White Paper on how it could and should invest in innovation (see here). This got me thinking about innovation and what it means.
The official government definition of innovation is “the successful exploitation of new ideas”. As with many definitions, this just throws up as many queries as it helps to solve. In particular the meaning of the word ‘new’ and why ‘successful’ has to be in there. The former can be got round by saying it just has to be new in some way to the industry or organisation, or indeed that is could be a new application of an something older. It’s a bit of a fudge but let’s run with that. However, ‘successful’ is less easily explained – whilst I can understand that the best innovations are successful, not all of them are. Success is often a subjective measure and may not be obvious for many years after the innovation has occurred. I’d rather leave this out.
A few years ago I ran a large survey across more than 700 London SMEs to try to get an understanding of what innovation was. The results were interesting, if not a little concerning. We approached a definition from three angles:
In isolation how would a business owner define innovation
What examples could they give of other innovations they have seen and been impressed by
Could they give an example of an innovation in their own business in the previous twelve months
The first question brought back the usual definitions. Words like ‘new’ and ‘different’ were matched with ‘idea’ and ‘technology’ in most definitions. The examples from other businesses, however, was more revealing. Every respondent gave an example that was both tangible (a definite product not service) and from a technology business – in fact most people mentioned the iPod. This was surprising to me and when we explored why people mentioned this it became clear that they associated innovation with something that was either “not an idea I could come up with” or was “a cool bit of kit that lets me do something I couldn’t before”. In both cases the assumption is that innovation is something people don’t do themselves.
For a cross-section of London’s most active SMEs this was worrying. And their own examples only underlined this concern. few were able to mention an innovation that they had done in the previous year and those that could again mentioned new products.
We decided to probe a little further to get beneath this and it was then that I understood more about what was going on. It wasn’t that none of these businesses were innovating – in fact some were highly innovative – but that they just didn’t see it as this. They saw innovation, with it’s definitions and theories, as something that didn’t involve them, whereas in fact it was what they were doing day in and day out. They thought they were just focusing on the bottom line and growing their business rather than on some ‘innovation’. Based on this we came up with our own definition to add to the mix: Doing things differently to make more money. It seemed to capture the mood nicely.
Online research is big business, back in 2005 a report from Cambiar predicted that it would account for about 20% of the research-related industry by 2008, and there is little to suggest this isn’t true. But online research can lead to many problems – with no way of checking the true identity of respondents it is up to panel providers and research firms to ensure they follow world-class standards and codes of conduct, and that they are constantly vigilant for possible cheats.
One cause for potential concern is that a relative small number of respondents fill in most online surveys globally. Research from ComScore in 2006 suggested that 20% of respondents account for 80% of online surveys – the fears are of expert respondents, fraudulent respondents and even automated software completing surveys.
The best providers of panels and online research will use techniques to combat the last of these – including test questions of the type “for quality control purposes please select ‘very good’ for this question”. These types of techniques can help combat software designed to automatically complete surveys as they will be unable to read and understand the semantics of the questions. They just randomly complete answers. But there has been little than can be done to automatically spot and remove fraudulent respondents. Perhaps, until now.
A report in AdAge this week reveals a new system from Peanut Labs that is in beta testing. Optimus creates a digital fingerprint of each computer in a survey. It can then identify respondents who fake responses or professionals who complete as many surveys as possible for the incentives or just to falsify survey results. It works a bit like the systems used to identify and prevent fraudulent use of online banking. Even though it’s only in beta testing, the system is currently used by Microsoft, Warner Bros., and 20 of the 50 biggest research firms. So clearly agencies and clients alike think that it works.
But whether or not the system works it will still be unable to completely guarantee that respondents are who they say they are or that they respond genuinely. In some instances it is better to build a relationship with respondents, to build trust both ways – that they know who you are and you know who they are. This is particularly the case when using online for qualitative research where more emphasis is placed on quality and depth of responses. Online communities are helping to change the face of online research in this way. Respondents are open and honest about who they are – they get to know each other and the brand running the community, and so are much more likely to be honest and open when they respond to your survey.
At FreshNetworks we wrote a white paper on how online research communities are changing online research. If you want a copy then send me an email here.
Our latest white paper is soon to be published, but register for a free copy now by sending me an email with your details: here.
We first spoke about this in an earlier post. Some people think that the the internet and qualitative research make unlikely bedfellows. But at FreshNetworks, we think that qualitative methods are set to exploit the way we use the internet, and specifically online research communities, to share opinions and information. Though later to the table than their quantitative counterparts, applying qualitative principals online opens up exciting possibilities, with benefits for brands and consumers alike. We’re exploring these issues in this new white paper, Online Customer Communities: a new era in qualitative market research.
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