Whether you’re just getting started or have been utilizing them for years, market research online communities (MROCs) are a modern, hybrid approach to collecting both qualitative and quantitative data in a cost-efficient way by engaging with a community of respondents in a private forum that is usually invite-only. Online communities can last anywhere from one project spanning a few weeks to functioning as a semi-permanent source of respondents and information. Social media, remote working, flex hours, smart phones, tablets – technology enables people to be connected online 24/7 and contacted more quickly and easily than ever. Many generations of respondents you’ll be interested in talking to over the next several years have grown up with the internet and may find discussing product usage or brand preferences more natural on a MROC app than in a contrived focus group setting – not to mention, much more convenient. While there are many advantages of using online communities, to ensure you’re gathering the most useful and insightful data from your target market, be sure to follow these tips for a successful project.
Collect Qual and Quant Insights Quicker
Traditional focus groups certainly have their advantages in exploratory research, but they can be very timely, expensive, and exhausting: you need to recruit and schedule participants, prepare prototypes, product samples, and any other demonstrative tools, hire a professional moderator, purchase incentives, reserve space in a focus group facility, set up audio/video equipment and process recordings – which may include transcribing, host several groups a day accounting for demographic factors such as age, gender, and parental status – potentially spanning several weeks if traveling to various representative cities/states, plus squeeze in time between groups to review what was discussed and adjust the moderator’s discussion guide as needed.
However, by utilizing modern software and applications, plus the added convenience of allowing respondents to participate in discussions at their leisure, a lot of the time and cost associated with focus groups is significantly reduced. Online communities don’t sacrifice quality for quantity, either, and can be as large as you want them to be, whereas focus groups need to be limited in size (generally no more than 10-12 people per group). Like focus groups, MROCs often use a Community Manager or Moderator to keep respondents engaged, dig for additional details, or simply keep participants focused on the topic at hand (although, another advantage of online communities is the ability to have slightly off-topic dialogue, which may provide new insights that wouldn’t have been revealed in a formal focus group setting where side conversation is considered a distraction and discouraged).
Additionally, MROCs can be used to collect quant data through the use of online polls, for example. Communities are extremely responsive, so data can be collected just about instantly with results in real time. Keep in mind that while MROCs are a fast solution for data collection, there is still cost associated with the effort to manage, as well as incentivize, participants. Also, MROCs use convenience sampling by recruiting from a panel of community members, rather than truly random sampling which may be adopted in other forms of quant research. You’ll need to weigh these factors to determine how best to use an online community to achieve your research objectives.
Use Tools That Respondents Are Familiar With – and Be Creative!
Keeping your respondents engaged is a key task of the Community Manager. Online communities are highly interactive by nature, but they still require a moderator’s invested time and interest in collecting useful insights and not just a bunch of potentially interesting, but not very helpful, chatter. Luckily, respondents are probably familiar with many of the tools at your disposal like polling, bulletin boards, blogging, and chat forums. But instead of merely posting a question and hoping respondents answer thoughtfully, bolster participation with creative assignments such as producing video diaries of their next shopping trip for your product category and having them narrate how they interact with the store shelves and products. Encourage respondents to make photo collages of their after-work activities so you can understand their busy schedules first-hand without the addition of observer influence. Conduct polls and reveal the results in real-time so participants can see how they responded compared to other community members. Because MROCs provide respondents with the flexible bonus of participating in the comfort of their own homes, foster a creative and fun atmosphere that will keep them engaged long-term. The flexible nature of online communities also allows for shyer participants to have a voice and not be overshadowed – a common disadvantage of focus groups. Sometimes it’s difficult to recruit a specific target, so when you find the right audience, you want to keep them in the conversation and make sure they feel respected and valued.
Respect Respondents’ Time and Effort
As with any market research involving collecting respondents’ thoughts and opinions, online communities should also offer incentives for participation. We live in an open, sharing culture, so participating in a private, members-only community may be attractive to those who want to be considered thought-leaders and impact future product development, but it always helps to provide a monetary or similar reward for their effort too. It’s also critical to pick the appropriate form of software (should you use a private website, an app that respondents can use on-the-go, or both?) and work out any technology kinks prior to beginning a project: consider setting aside up to two days to address questions and concerns that may arise when participants are first recruited. Providing proper instructions detailing the project’s goals and expectations, as well as who to contact for assistance, will help respondents plan ahead and commit to any deadlines. Be sure to over recruit by at least 20% in case some participants opt to drop out along the way. And, start the process with an ice-breaker discussion or simple assignment to foster a safe environment where participants feel open to sharing their honest thoughts and opinions without fear of judgement from moderators or other members.
When used effectively, market research online communities are an excellent way to engage with your target market – both qualitatively and quantitatively – while reducing many of the costs associated with traditional forms of research. Communities can be used repeatedly, offering the advantage of both long- and short-term conversations. Consider using a MROC instead of a focus group or observational research to attain results sooner, while providing a creative and flexible atmosphere for respondents to share their highly-valued attitudes and opinions at their own time and pace. As always, remember to compensate participants for their efforts to help encourage future participation.