Community research – moving with the times, by Ann Elliott
As consumers’ habits and the technology they use continues to develop, so does market research, in order to make it conducive to obtaining feedback. One of the techniques we’ve made a concerted effort to embrace over the past 12 months has been with online communities, an emerging and developing area in market research that takes advantage of the recent innovations to internet browsing on computers and smartphones alike.
The premise is simple, recruit participants (either on-site or via a survey), and host an online discussion over two or three days. Every few hours, post a topic for discussion, and participants provide their feedback. In essence, online community exploration is ‘taking the focus group online’. Not only is it arguably easier to ‘mine’ for extra insight and ask follow-up questions, in an online community experience, participants talk to each other as well as with the moderator. They exchange their ideas, debate them, disagree healthily and discuss the burning platforms. Furthermore, unlike a traditional focus group, participants are usually more comfortable asking questions themselves, regardless of whether they are sitting with their laptop in their living room, or on a train using their tablet or phone.
There’s also value in ‘reading between the lines’. What’s lost from face-to-face moderation, such as the ability to see emotion and body language, you gain from the language customer’s use and how they describe elements of their experience. For an industry where developing the right tone of voice is paramount, that’s incredibly useful. There’s a real richness to each and every response – every client can find value from seeing what sort of questions consumers ask about their brand.
However, there are other, more obvious benefits – they’re great for testing hypotheses quickly and decisively; most communities can be recruited, facilitated and analysed within a working week. In addition, they can be revisited – after each group, we have a roster of participants nationwide who are willing to take part in online research and provide concise feedback. Having said that, whilst communities are normally more cost-effective than their face-to-face counterparts, there are still benefits of traditional focus groups. On average, it’s only possible to ask around half of the questions a group will cover, so the more in-depth, exhaustive research is better served by a more comprehensive group.
There’s also the reality that not all consumers will be comfortable contributing to online discussions on more sensitive topics. Nevertheless, it’s simple to screen this kind of participant out when recruiting for a community. It’s also true that the younger generations, those who’ve grown up digitally native, are more likely to participate. Older generations who are more technophobic are less inclined to embrace such a platform, but with every panel conducted, experience shows this barrier slowly coming down.
Overall, every brand will have something to gain from an online community. Several have already established a retained panel of consumers that they have a conversation with on a monthly basis. Thai Leisure Group is one example of whom Elliotts conducts a panel with each month – they’re a great way of obtaining consumer insight about the brand’s burning platforms on a regular basis. That’s not to say communities don’t work on a more ad hoc agenda; Marston’s was an early adopter here, and recently worked with us on a panel as part of a wider project – it was a great way of rationalising feedback from other research streams with a panel of articulate consumers.
More and more businesses are seeing the value of this new methodology – and will continue to do so until research again moves on to its next innovation!