10 Things You Need To Know About Online Community Research

Online community research

Over the past years, online community research has developed into a serious market research tool. It can be used to collect consumer insights by means of forum discussions, creative challenges and game like mechanics with and between participants. Research communities are also known as MROCs which is an abbreviation for Market Research Online Communities.

This blog post indicates 10 solid bricks that help you to build an insights community. It is aimed at the beginning or moderately experienced community researcher. Use these tips freely but wisely and let us know about your results, experiences and outcomes. Your feedback may be used in the next revision of this document.

1. To Facilitate Online Community Research You Need a Multi-Disciplinary Team

When you want to do community research you need to know that there need to be several different experts involved to make your research a success. Community research happens in an online platform. That’s why IT and design take up a big role.

Your typical MROC team consists of:

a market researcher & project manager

In MROCs, the market researcher ideally has experience with qualitative research and leading discussion groups. The researcher typically also manages the project and helps to coordinate the tasks of the other team members.

a software developer

MROCs run in online platforms. Since no platform is the same and every research has its own unique demands, the software developer makes sure these demands are met, implemented and functioning.

an (interaction) designer

Of course your platform should be easy to use
and appealing to your community members. That’s why you need someone who knows how to take care of that. The designer also designs (and implements) the corporate identity of the client (or a more abstract design if necessary) and makes sure that navigating around the platform is easy to understand.

a community manager

The community manager is the sidekick of the researcher. He or she prepares questions and assignments in the platform, prepares newsletters, is the main spokesperson for the community members and makes sure the platform runs smoothly. Happy people make a happy community.

an IT manager

Online platforms are vulnerable to IT flaws. That’s why the performance of the platform has to be monitored continuously. In case of problems, for example down-time, data-loss or connection problems, you need to have someone who can act immediately. If your platform is hosted by a third- party, this is their problem. But unfortunately their problem is also your problem. Be sure to check the service level agreement you have with them.

The people in your MROC team are either part of your internal organization or people that are contracted. But whoever they are, their communication lines should be short enough to act quickly in case of sudden glitches that need immediate action.

2. You Need Great Technology

Of course you can build your own community platform but this can take up a lot of time and money. Chances are you want to focus on the research itself and not on building a platform. It’s also possible you are reinventing the wheel and are creating something that is outdated the minute it is finished. Therefor you may better look for a 3rd party supplier. They can supply you with a hosted solution or something you can run on your own server. Platforms are usually licensed based on a monthly or yearly fee.

There are several platform providers out there but make sure the platform is suited for the job. Was the platform created with online community research in mind? Or is it a platform that can be used in a broader sense also, for example for document sharing amongst workgroups. If that is the case you should be aware that the less focus a platform has on a certain task, the less successful it will be for your particular business case.

You should also be aware that a platform should perform flawlessly across different devices. Over 50% (1) of people browse the web using a mobile device. Make sure your platform can handle that. Do you need location based services? Then make sure your platform also comes with a native app for iOS, Android, Windows Mobile or BlackBerry.

3. Technology Determines Only 10% Of Success, But If Technology Fails, Your Research Is Bound To Fail Too.

While we stress the importance of a bug free, user friendly, great looking community platform, the platform itself determines only 10% of the success of your research. The other 90% is made up of community management in its broadest sense. You need to know who your target group is and how to “activate” them. What tone of voice should you use? What makes them come to the platform and join your community? But more important, what makes them return? Are they informed well enough about the goals of the research? Are their questions followed up quickly enough?

Great online community research stands and falls with a great community manager who knows how to trigger people. If the participants have the feeling they are on their own, they tend to leave and not come back.

But here comes the extra pitfall: even if you take care of this 90%, your research is bound to fail if technology fails. Failure can show its ugly face in different ways. For example: users can’t login because of browser incompatibility, the platform’s response time is too slow, users can’t find their way around or invitation emails never arrive. A failing platform is the number 1 reason for participants to stay away. Test your platform daily and monitor its usage. A 3rd party supplier with experience in your area of business is a big plus.

4. You Need The 1%

In a previous article we talked about ‘the 1%’. (2) This 1% rule applies to community research in two ways.

First, you need to be aware that participating in online community research is not the same as having to ll in an online questionnaire. MROCs are usually more complex, but also take more time from people. A typical MROC runs for 3 weeks and demands the user to check back daily if possible.

Not everybody in your target group might be a digital native (3) or feels comfortable in online communities. That’s why online research tends to be colored by people that spend a lot of time online already. It also means that certain target groups (i.e. elderly people, disabled people) are harder to pursue in community research. Simply taking a sample from your online panel might not be sufficient in that case. You may have to look elsewhere as well. Facebook, for example, can be a great place to collect sample for your community. It is also advised to start with an online questionnaire before inviting people to your community.  This helps you to make sure people are really willing to participate once they are invited.

“MROCs are also great for co-creation where participants solve challenges together and brainstorm in realtime.”

Be aware of the golden rule which says that only 1% of people that participate in online communities will actively create content (4). 9% will contribute or react on content created by others and 90% tends to only read. This applies to any type of community that is accessible to anyone. The percentage of people actively creating content in private communities tends to be higher but still lies around the 30-40% range. You should be aware of that when inviting people and determine if you have invited enough community members.

5. Community Research Is Not Quantitative And Neither Qualitative Research

Community research is about online dialogue. This means that all kinds of subjects within the scope of the research are discussed in an online chat or forum amongst all community members or certain subgroups.

Some platforms have personal journals that support rich content in a private space, enabling community managers and participants to discuss more delicate subjects from person to person. MROCs are also great for co-creation where participants solve challenges together or brainstorm in realtime.

This type of data collection is more similar to focus groups and qualitative research than to questionnaire-based research. Community research is ideally suited for collecting insights, and enables you to dig deeper to get the underlying motivations of people to the surface. Of course questionnaires can be a part of this but should be seen as a nice extra, not as your core methodology.

Lastly, due to the 1% rule mentioned earlier, caution should be taken when projecting the results on the entire target group population.

6. You Need To Support Both Intrinsic And Extrinsic Motivation

It shouldn’t be a surprise that people should be motivated to participate in your research. Ideally people are already intrinsically motivated to
join and have a say because they are personally involved with the subject. Or because they are a fan of the brand. If you are a brand lover it will be a real honor that you are asked for your opinion or ideas.

Still, our experience shows that intrinsic motivation may not always be enough to bind people for a longer period.

That’s why we think that gamication should play a large role in online community research. With gamication, participants are rewarded for their actions and can earn badges once they earned a certain amount of points. Points can be given for any type of action, from reading to writing and from clicking to voting.

These game-like mechanics contribute to the fun aspect of participation and they are extrinsic motivators. Just as with board games, people like to test their skills to the community and compare their skills to those of others.

Gamification has proven to be a great methodology to increase the participation level of community members. It makes people return, check their score, submit more content and keep the subject top of mind.

7. Don’t Make Sessions Longer Than 4 Weeks

Research communities tend to last no longer than 4 weeks. Of course longer or even continuous communities exist but they usually have a di erent goal (i.e. customer suport or internal crowdsourcing). These types of communities see members come and go and make them less well suited for research purposes.

If you are doing research you want people to focus. That’s why it is important to set clear goals already at the beginning, and it is important you are open to any questions participants may have about the purpose of the research.

Then over a course of 3 to 4 weeks you present them with different tasks and subtasks. You should ask them to return regularly and you can trigger them to come back by giving points, or by sending newsletters and personal messages. Too many touch points may be experienced as negative and can result in a decline of activity and motivation. Community performance also has a certain tipping point which lies somewhere between week 2 and 3.

If you need to breath new life into your community you will need fresh input. This can be achieved by means of inviting new members or by continuing from a different angle. It’s perfectly acceptable“ e total amount of clicks is usually a good indication of the global health of your community if it correlates with the amount of new content to break larger research subjects into separate sessions with a few weeks pause.

8. Use Asynchronous And Synchronous Dialogue, But Don’t Mix Them Up

Online dialogue can be used in two separate ways: synchronous and asynchronous.

Synchronous dialogue means that people are interacting with other community members in real time, i.e. an online chat or a realtime drawing board. The majority of online community research happens asynchronous which means that people respond in their own time and usually are not aware if, or when, other members are online.

These two communication types can be mixed during the course of your research but not every method is equally suited for each type of data collecting. For example, if you want people to solve a challenge you should give them some time to re ect, see what others do, have a good night sleep and then submit their idea. It’s no use setting up an synchronous connection in that case.

Synchronous communication is ideal for kick-o meetings ahead of the research and for evaluating in between or afterwards. This adds up to the awareness of members that the community is actually “alive” and community managers are real people. For the rest you should stick to asynchronous communication as much as possible.

9. Measure Community Health

In MROCs it is key to quantify performance. We advice to closely watch the individual performance of your community members. How many people are creating content? How many of them are replying? And how many are reading? This enables you to take action on an individual or subgroup level. Perhaps a certain challenge is too di cult. By monitoring community health you will notice this in time and can still make changes. The total amount of clicks usually is a good indication of the global health of your community if it correlates with the amount of new content. For the rest you should analyze people’s individual behavior. Remember you can’t force people to create new content if they are actually more comfortable reflecting on content other people have created. As mentioned in the 1% rule, communities consist of di erent kinds of people and you need these different kinds for communities to be healthy.

10. Use Community Research As an Innovative Research Method, Not As a Goal In Itself

Before you start your community research be sure to convince yourself this method is the right one for the job. Don’t just do it because it sounds cool or your client demands it.

Here’s an overview of the upsides of MROCs:

• Connect with people across the country or the globe independent of time and place.
• Collect data in similar ways to focus group research but over a longer time period (giving your community time for re ection, etc.);
• Make it easy and fun for people to participate in research. Make use of the gami cation elements and transparency of MROCs;
• Mix multiple ways of data collecting in one online environment;
• Discuss, dig deeper and enable people to interact;
• Reach more people and get higher response rates in comparison to online questionnaires.

If these aren’t of value in your particular business case, then you might look for an alternative method or more traditional type of research.

For completeness we also sum up the most important downsides of MROCs:

• Community research consumes a lot of time from your research team. Reserve at least 2 FTE from your research department. For this reason and also because you need an MRCO team & high tech software, online community research tends to be relatively expensive;
• You are collecting a lot of data that has to be analyzed intensively;
• Compared to focus group research, having no eye contact demands an experienced community manager to collect similar valuable insights