A lot of people often ask me what a community is and how it differs from any other research project or a panel. This discussion came up recently when a client sighed and told me it was just a buzz word. Personally, I think this perception of communities is a great shame as communities offer real value in their own right. But I also think the term has become so overused in the market research industry that its value has started to erode. In short, they are over-sold and over-promised.
The Oxford dictionary defines a community as, “A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common”. Similarly, an online community is a group of people present together in an online space, sharing a common interest or attitude.
What is a Research Community?
A research community isn’t defined by its scale, size or length of duration. It is defined by how it is set up and operated. Fundamentally it is about sharing. Participants share the same space or thoughts and opinions around a shared topic. At its purest, this is the antithesis of all traditional market research methods — surveys, discussion groups, interviews and more, which are all based on asking direct questions. It occupies a unique space on the brand position triangle (pictured below) which separates it from similar, yet ultimately different, research methods.
The Brand-Consumer Triangle: Surveys
Surveys are the most frequently used research method and are predominantly a quantitative method. A survey is one directional; it asks questions to consumers. The researcher frames the questions and the questions frame the answers.
These days we can get more sophisticated and ask open questions, frame the questions in drag and drop styles or ask customers to mark an image. But regardless of how we dress it up, surveys are still very much a one-way communication where the answers are determined by the structure of the question. They occupy position 1 of the brand-consumer triangle.
The Brand-Consumer Triangle: Qual
Qualitative research adds a feedback mechanism, turning the research into a dynamic and fluid format. Questions are asked, answers are given and then a discussion follows. Because of this interactive nature, qual research occupies position 2 on the brand-consumer triangle.
Put this into an online setting and we get structured discussion forums — or bulletin boards — where defined questions are asked, answers are given and the moderator prompts and probes for more detail. In an online setting we often have the opportunity to turn these discussions into individual threads. Some may argue that this is a research community — but it isn’t. The structured nature of it restricts it from being so.
The Brand-Consumer Triangle: Communities
A research community adds a third dimension to the research process. It encourages the peer-to-peer, consumer-to-consumer dialogue, beyond the restrictive group discussion format. In a research community, we have objectives and goals, but they become more like tasks or challenges, more open in their design and operation.
By positively encouraging peer-to-peer engagement outside of the direct research, we uncover attitudes, opinions and emotions that otherwise wouldn’t be discovered. We add a further richness, depth and understanding. We unlock creativeness.
To effectively create a successful online community is a difficult process. These are some of the most important aspects to bear in mind when creating an online community:
- Don’t use a structured topic guide. Instead of defining very specific questions for each day, use topic themes.
- Don’t use ‘threaded’ discussion formats. Much of online qual is based around the old structure of bulletin boards where every person has their own thread. This format doesn’t encourage sharing.
- Enable participants to start their own discussions at any time. Encourage them to be on topic and on the right theme, but give them the freedom to say what they want.
- Enable participants to contact each other outside of the research space. Ideally this is a private channel out of sight of the moderator. Its purpose is to encourage participants to make personal connections away from the research. Its encourages sharing and community building rather than a direct, measurable output.
- Give participants the ability to search and find each other, to get to know each other and take ownership of the shared space.
- Promote participation through a social status mechanism. More than just reward points, this gives a status, or a badge, and promotes the value to contributing.
- Add a sense of friendly competition through the user of leader boards to reward those who are regularly contributing.
So why is the term community so overused in the market research industry? Often it is because it can easily be used to sell something new and exciting, or perhaps to differentiate an online method from a traditional one. But we do so at our peril. We are in danger of devaluing, and even killing off, true research communities.
Over the past few years, the word community has become attached to many different types of project. From short term forums sold as under the guise community spaces to online projects which are individual in nature and where there is no shared space at all!
Some people define a community by the number of participants. Others define it as research applied in an agile setting, which it certainly can be, but this isn’t a defining feature. Agile research is a framework for operating, not the definition of a research community. The commonality across all research communities should be in the way they are run — shared spaces, interests or attitudes, open in nature and with a focus on listening rather than direct questioning. Realising a research community involves balancing the desire to ask, with the need to listen.
Ultimately, a community is more than the sum of its questions. It empowers participants and encourages a shared and free exchange of ideas. It challenges the research process as it means we need to take the shackles off and introduce more freedom.