Online market research communities (or MROCs) are closed networks of profiled, opted-in research participants who take part in structured and unstructured qualitative research tasks. Usually hosted over a long term basis, a research community is one key way brands stay close to their customers across multiple projects. The set up is ideal for listening to common themes and trends, whilst running a layer of stakeholder led insight projects on topics important to a brand.
Typically, an online market research community will consist of up to 500 a small number of customers, and have been operated on an invite only basis. However, as technology advances and the role of customer centricity has grown in importance, this dynamic is changing. Community panels have begun to emerge; combining the scale of a customer panel (which often hold between 10,000–100,000 participants) with the qualitative nature of an online community. Similarly, the closed nature of research communities is being challenged as firms seek to engage more with a broad range of customers.
What is the Point of an Online Community?
At this point, it’s worth considering that there are broadly three types of market research community. Although each of these has a separate goal, they are not mutually exclusive and communities often span multiple objectives. They are:
- Project based communities. These are long term research investments that enable researchers to run continuous insight schedules. Projects may include focus groups, bulletin boards, diaries, image and video tasks or specific forum discussions. They allow researchers to dip in and out, without having to recruit from external sources; however require constant management in order to maintain engagement.
- Listening communities. Unlike project based communities, the goal of a listening community is to let participants lead conversations and better understand organically occurring themes. For this reason, researchers do not set agendas and projects, but rather provide the space for participants to discuss what is most important to them and listen in.
- Pop-up communities. A pop-up community is a short term project, often running for three months or less, designed to gather rich, qualitative insights into a single topic. Often, pop-up communities are managed as sub sets of a larger community program, but can also be standalone.
While the objectives of each of these communities may differ, the benefits remain the same. An online market research community is one of the most efficient, engaging ways to gain rich qualitative feedback whilst reducing the recruitment and incentive management overheads that are incurred from working on a project to project basis.
Advantages of an Online Research Community
The most straightforward benefit of an online community is the simplification of recruitment, incentive management and participant quality control. Because communities are filled with pre-profiled participants, recruitment and incentives for individual qualitative projects are all handed within a single platform. In turn, this has a knock on effect on project management, efficiency and speed of insight — a real win-win.
It’s also easy to understate just how much of a benefit the flexible scale and scope of an online community is. With many platforms capable of running projects across multiple languages, geographies, brands and consumer segments: a community can grow with your brand and research needs.
The AQR notes that online communities are also able to gradually guide participants to more complex areas of discussion and topics than other, shorter term methodologies would allow. Similarly, communities encourage more reflective, in-depth insight as participants have more time to think about answers, responses and suggestions from other members.
Crucially, however, community platforms provide opportunities for participant to participant interaction that do not exist in project based structures. A well maintained community will not only provide insight on a per project basis — but, as customers create and share their own content, acting as a springboard for even deeper discussion.
And these benefits are clearly not lost on researchers. The Q3-Q4 Greenbook GRIT report found that 59% of respondents are already using this form of research methodology and a total of 80% are at the very least interested in them. This makes them the number #1 most adopted emerging research trend. Online communities even beat mobile first surveys in terms of popularity, used by 54% of respondents.
However, no methodology is perfect — and communities are not an exception. The common challenges that need to be overcome include: maintaining engagement levels over a long period of time, the possibility of group think to emerge, communities to become fractious or toxic, and the investment in content production to fill the time between projects.
How to Choose a Research Community Platform
Choosing the right supplier is a vital decision, and one that can have a significant impact on your success. There are a range of factors to consider; tool availability, recruitment methods, user experience, supporting services and, of course, return on investment.
Fortunately, most research platforms have a similar set of core features — such as a range of data collection methods, custom branding and data exports. However, here’s some questions you should consider during the platform selection process:
- How does the platform handle multiple projects and communities? Similarly, what structure of community works best for your brand if you wish to segment customers or run projects across multiple products / categories?
- Who is the platform designed for and who in my organisation will be using it? While some platforms will have an interface and features that are more useful to experienced researchers, others simplify user interfaces for ease of use and are more attractive to a non-research audience.
- How can I extend my research program further, either within the platform or through integration with other technologies?
- What data security policies or certifications does the platform provider have in place that will safeguard my customer data? Especially since GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Law have been introduced, data security has been thrust into the spotlight. It’s important to understand how the platform will handle this.
Of course, there are a range of online research community platforms to choose from. If you’d like to find out more about ours — InsightHub — and the ten qualitative & quantitative tools it provides access to, take a look at this short video.
The original version of this article appeared on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.