Online market research communities (or MROCs) are closed networks of profiled, opted-in research participants who participate in structured and unstructured qualitative research tasks. A research community, which is usually hosted on a long-term basis, is one important way for brands to stay in touch with their customers across multiple projects. The setup is ideal for listening to common themes and trends while running a layer of stakeholder-led insight projects on topics important to a brand.
Typically, an online market research community will have up to 500 customers and will be operated on an invite-only basis. However, as technology advances and the importance of customer centricity grows, this dynamic is shifting. Community panels have begun to emerge, combining the scale of a customer panel (which typically has between 10,000 and 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 with a broader range of customers.
What is the Point of an Online Community?
It’s worth noting at this point that there are three types of market research communities. Although each has a distinct goal, they are not mutually exclusive, and communities frequently span multiple objectives. They are as follows:
- Project-based communities These are long-term research investments that allow 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 outside sources; however, they require constant management to maintain engagement.
- Listening communities Unlike project-based communities, the goal of a listening community is to allow participants to lead conversations and better understand naturally occurring themes. As a result, researchers do not set agendas or projects, but rather allow participants to discuss and listen in on what is most important to them.
- Pop-up towns. A pop-up community is a short-term project, usually lasting three months or less, that is designed to gather rich, qualitative insights into a single topic. Pop-up communities are frequently managed as subsets of larger community programmes, but they can also stand alone.
While the goals of each of these communities may differ, the benefits are the same. An online market research community is one of the most efficient and engaging ways to obtain rich qualitative feedback while reducing the recruitment and incentive management overheads associated with working on a project-by-project basis.
Advantages of an Online Research Community
The most obvious advantage of an online community is the simplification of recruitment, incentive management, and participant quality control. Because communities are filled with pre-screened participants, recruitment and incentives for individual qualitative projects are handled through a single platform. As a result, project management, efficiency, and insight speed improve – a true win-win situation.
It’s also easy to underestimate the value of an online community’s adaptability. With many platforms capable of running projects across multiple languages, geographies, brands, and consumer segments: a community can grow alongside your brand and research needs.
According to the AQR, online communities can also gradually guide participants to more complex areas of discussion and topics are covered in greater depth than other, shorter-term methodologies would allow. Similarly, communities encourage more reflective, in-depth insight because participants have more time to consider other members’ answers, responses, and suggestions.
Crucially, community platforms enable participant-to-participant interaction that does not exist in project-based structures. A well-maintained community will not only provide insight on a project-by-project basis, but will also serve as a springboard for even deeper discussion as customers create and share their own content.
These advantages are clearly not lost on researchers. In terms of popularity, online communities even outperformed mobile first surveys, which were used by 54% of respondents.
No methodology is perfect, and communities are no exception. Common challenges include: maintaining engagement levels over time, the possibility of groupthink emerging, communities becoming fractious or toxic, and investing in content production to fill the void.
How to Choose a Research Community Platform
Choosing the right supplier is a critical decision that can have a significant impact on your success. There are several factors to consider, including tool availability, recruitment methods, user experience, supporting services, and, of course, return on investment.
Fortunately, most research platforms share a common set of core features, such as a variety of data collection methods, custom branding, and data exports. However, here are some questions to consider during the platform selection process:
- What is the platform’s approach to managing multiple projects and communities? Likewise, what community structure works best for your brand if you want to segment customers or run projects across multiple products / categories?
- Who is the platform intended for, and who will use it in my organisation? While some platforms will have a user interface and features that are more useful to experienced researchers, others will simplify user interfaces for ease of use and appeal to a non-research audience.
- How can I broaden my research programme, either within the platform or by integrating it with other technologies?
- What data security policies or certifications does the platform provider have in place to protect my customer information? Data security has been thrust into the spotlight, particularly since the introduction of GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act. It is critical to comprehend how the platform will handle this.