As seen in the recent Asia Research Buyer Surveys, very few clients across the region have used online communities: around 15% in Singapore and just 2% in Indonesia. As community experts, we at Join the Dots have a vested interest in increasing this, but it seems that our key task is to convince readers about the benefits of using them. So let me try!
Firstly, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to communities. They’re bespoke and can vary in size, shape, branding, participants, and focus, but we like to think of them as falling into two broad types.
A single issue (or short-term) community can be used as a replacement – or complement to – offline qualitative research. Typically, they have a small sample size (e.g. 20–50) and last anywhere from a week to a couple of months. They can act as a substitute or supplement for focus groups, with the key benefit being that they are iterative, and so we can revisit community members – recruited specifically for the project – over the course of this period to build on their previous answers. This type of community is excellent for co-creating with consumers, such as testing and refining concepts over time, so that by the end of the community, the concept has been tweaked, adjusted, and fine-tuned, all based on consumer input. They also work well for understanding a purchase decision journey, as we can capture the key influencers on behaviour during the whole fieldwork period, including the small nudges which may be forgotten in a later focus group when consumers are post-rationalising their actions and behaviours. This is especially powerful when combined with in-the-moment video footage or diaries.
A longer-term community is anything running for longer than a three-month period; some of ours have been running for 7+ years continuously. These typically have sample sizes of 1,000+, so are larger in scale, and while the basic principle is the same as the short-term communities, the key difference is having an ‘always on’ group of engaged consumers who are interested in the brand or category, and who have opted to be ready to answer questions at any time, rather than for a specific period. This makes research turnaround times much faster than traditional research, sometimes only a matter of hours or days. This isn’t only for standard projects where insights can be fed back to a business quickly, but also for quick, snappy insights about current events, crises, or competitor activity, something more traditional methods aren’t geared up to do without significant set-up time.
Where both types of communities really add value is with the age-old challenges of speed, quality, and cost, as well as actionable insight. Eliminating the need for recruitment costs on each project and building up a relationship with the agency account team means more efficiency in spend, but also an increase in research quality. Given that learnings can be combined across multiple projects, previous insights can be built upon rather than starting ad hoc each time. While this further streamlines efficiencies by cutting down briefing time for each project, this improved understanding and relationship with clients also facilitates more actionable insight, all grounded in commercial reality. Where ad hocs typically last 8–12 weeks, communities afford a more typical turnaround of 2–4 weeks from a standard brief to report delivery, though this can be completed more quickly, depending on the size and scope (a quick ‘show of hands’ poll can be run overnight, for example). User-generated content can also be mined to understand the conversations as they naturally occur amongst members, as we encourage them to interact with each other; it wouldn’t be a ‘community’ without this.
A community can help business areas as diverse as product development, customer service, marketing, or innovation come together, and can be used for concept and product testing (even product samples), or understanding consumer behaviour, needs, and attitudes right through the customer experience. They can help to screen, develop, and test communications, generate PR, and help develop brand strategy – in fact, except for large-scale quant (where very specific or representative samples are needed), they can help to answer most things more traditional research can, though usually much more quickly and with a much better cost–value ratio.
A couple of years ago, we looked across our global communities and created a segmentation to better understand what motivates participants to be members of our communities. Whilst prize draws and other incentives featured, they were much less important than we expected. Instead, the key is for participants to feel they have influence over the brand the community is sponsored by, so it’s important for us to give them regular feedback about how their input has been used by the brand. We call our community members ‘critical friends’. Yes, they become sensitive to research because we have a continuous dialogue with them, but it also means they’re honest with their opinions, which, as they have a vested interest in the brand, is more insightful than someone giving us the answers they think we want to hear.
We don’t just think of communities as a purely online experience, and often interact with our members offline too. This includes inviting them to workshops with clients as part of customer closeness sessions (I recall the CEO of one of our community clients asking, “What would Ken think?” – Ken being one of our members who’d attended some closeness sessions and clearly had an impact, even at board level!), chatting to them on the phone, meeting them in outlets to accompany them on a shopping journey, or sending them product samples to try.
As with all research, the key objective is to get closer to consumers, provide actionable insights for your clients, and demonstrate great value for money. Communities – in all their shapes and sizes – offer a great way to do this, online and beyond. What are you waiting for? 🙂