The term market research online community (or MROC for short) was originally coined by Forrester Research in their 2008 report ‘Will Web 2.0 Transform Market Research’. Since then, online research communities have become increasingly popular and more diverse as researchers have found more creative uses of the methodology. We even have a range of community tools dedicated to helping you make the most out of your online research.
But with so much variation, it can be difficult to know where to begin. In this article, we break down four of the most common types of online research community and examine the research problems that they can be applied to. Of course, it is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to use a community. So long as you are gathering insightful data that will improve how your business operates, the nature of your community is down to you. These are simply starting points: popular methods that can provide a basis for your own unique community.
1. Cross-Section Community
The first and most popular use of online research communities is the cross-section. A cross-section community combines a range of participants to gather a broad range of opinions. From regular customers to one-off shoppers and even non-customers within your target demographic: a cross-section community is designed to encompass all.
Perhaps the most diverse of all online communities, a cross-section community can be the most difficult to manage. To ensure that a range of opinions are heard and no particular group feels excluded it is important to be active in moderating. This can be particularly challenging — and it is important to ensure that no one group becomes significantly more active than the others.
Sharing improvements and applications of community feedback in practise is one way to keep balance. Another is to divide the community into separate projects. Each group of participants is assigned to a different workspace, creating a number of different sub-communities. It may require more moderation, but this approach ensures each group is fairly and accurately represented.
2. Community Panel
A community panel is a hybrid between two long-standing online research methods. Traditionally panels are large scale pools of respondents ready and willing to complete surveys. They are best used for frequent but quantitative research. Communities meanwhile, are usually much smaller — with a group of participants ready to provide unprompted, detailed qualitative opinion.
The hybrid community panel approach sits directly in the middle. There are two distinct ways to achieve a community panel. The first is to run a community within a market research panel. To do this, you need to select the most engaged members of your panel and invite them to a select community (preferably within the same online portal). These participants are still members of your panel, but can also interact within the new community space and offer more detailed feedback.
Alternatively, it is possible to open up community features to all members of your existing panel. By doing this, community members will essentially self-select. Those who want to be more active and provide greater feedback have the opportunity to do so, while those who would rather not can remain panel members. However, when considering this approach it is always worth understanding the associated risks. The main concern that arises from a self-selecting community panel is the motivations behind why people self-select. It is often because members either have extremely positive or negative opinions they wish to share, which can lead to a dangerously polarised community.
3. Social Listening Community
A newer development that takes advantage of social media monitoring, a social listening community is a particularly laissez-faire approach to community management. Whether it is in a public forum (such as Twitter) or a private community, social listening involves simply analysing what is said about a brand or organisation. Rather than proactively prompting participants on particular topics, social listening communities evolve naturally over time — shaped by the will of participants. Moderators analyse comments and seek out popular topics that give rise to new insights.
Of course, while a social listening community may be easy to set up, there are some distinct challenges involved. The most prominent is that communities cannot sustain themselves. Private social listening communities in particular can suffer from low engagement rates due to the lack of prompting from moderators. While it may be tempting to rectify this through infrequent prompts, this is discouraged as it can itself influence the direction the resulting conversation takes. The best way to sustain a private social listening community is through large numbers of participants and automated email workflows that remind participants to engage after periods of inactivity.
4. Retrospective Tracking Community
Finally, the most specialised item on our list is the retrospective tracking community. These research projects are large undertakings and require longitudinal analysis. The premise is simple: once the community has been established, monitor how individual (and overall) sentiment changes. Similar to a social listening community, the main difference between the two is the active moderation involved in a retrospective community. These communities are the largest investment as the insight is not immediate. In fact, once the project has begun, it may be six months to a year before any actionable insights can be collected.
However, the insight that can be generated at these points is incredibly valuable. The change in opinion demonstrates the overall trajectory of business performance — whether it is improving or not in the eyes of the consumer. The real power of the retrospective tracking community, however, comes from the ability to drill down to the individual level and track the story of key consumers over time. This level of narrative detail makes for a compelling business case and helps in the presentation of research findings.
Those are our top four types of research community that can improve business insight, but this is not the full extent of community uses. Online market research communities are a diverse tool, limited only by your imagination and creativity. Let us know in the comments below how else you have used research communities to deliver key insight.