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Online Communities for Market Research: Let’s Not Oversell Them

bigstockphoto_Admonishing_Businessman_By_Fin_4228869This is my response to a well-meaning but misinformed article published in Forrester‘s Groundswell blog. I address the 2 most obvious factual errors below.


Yes, online research communities have their place.  I ardently believe that there are many organizations that can benefit from structured online communities (MROCs or ORCs, as many now call them), or even just well-run, online customer advisory boards (link). In fact, there are some markets for which I think online communities can be one of the best ways of getting honest, objective customer insights. But let’s not oversell it; if we do, we’ll only cause a lot of heartache (and wasted research dollars).

So, please, some reality checks:

“And if you worry about whether these collections of consumers function like real communities on the Internet, you shouldn’t.”  Well, I think what the author meant is that “some of them do.” But nobody thinking about funding (and we are talking about significant funding here) an online research community should assume they are guaranteed to have the same experience. Few communities have the defining bond that cancer patients have (the example cited in the Forrester blog).  Some organizations simply don’t have customer bases so eager to connect with peers for experience sharing, support, etc.  Some do—there are some brands that have very passionate customers (Apple comes to mind). So be real: does your organization have a customer base that will be self-motivated to participate? Does your product category engender “team spirit”? If so, great; online communities may be realistic for you.

The statement, “But research communities can do things no other form of research can do. You can ask follow-up questions to get clarification or more detail. You can look at the profiles of members, to put their questions in context”, is factually  incorrect. You can do that with most types of research. Doing focus groups or interviews? You can easily ask for more context or follow-up clarifications, and do so with the benefit of reading body language (follow-up is also feasible for surveys, though the response is generally not real-time). Any half-decent researcher knows to gather contextual information (either for focus groups, interviews or survey projects), and in many cases the screening process uses techniques to ensure this context is valid.  Doing online research? There are most certainly tools available that allow you to do real-time probing; two that come readily to mind are Invoke Solutions and iModerate.  Yes, online communities can do these things too—but to say “no other form of research can” is simply untrue.

Online Research Communities have a place. But whenever we gather customer insights, or insights from the broader market, we always need to first ask, “What are the objectives? What do we want to learn? What will we do with this data?”  The answers to those questions will drive the key decision about best methodology. Should the research be “blind” (the sponsor kept anonymous to avoid bias)? Should it be quantitative? Is directional insight sufficient? Should it be done in one country or many? Should it include our customers and/or competitors’ customers? Only then can you pick which tools, or combination, will be the best choice for your market research dollars.

For more reading about online research communities and their use I recommend these articles:

MROC talk blog: LINK

From Research Live and well-regarded market research thinker Tom Ewing: LINK

From Vovici, a balanced review of one happy online community client’s experience (ABC Studios): LINK

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Kathryn Korostoff

Kathryn Korostoff is founder and lead instructor at Research Rockstar. Over the past 25 years, she has personally directed more than 600 primary market research projects and published over 100 bylined articles in magazines. She is also a professor at Boston University, where she teaches grad students how to analyze and report quantitative data.

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6 thoughts on “Online Communities for Market Research: Let’s Not Oversell Them”

  1. Thanks for this post. This topic reminds me a little of all sensation regarding social media about a year ago – many marketers were advising companies to jump on the bandwagon, and sometimes, to abandon all other methods, or at least shift a significant portion of marketing budgets into these tools. Online communities need to be viewed as a tool in the whole box of possible tools – one that may be right in certain situations and circumstances, and may complement others but, I really don’t think, can replace. It’s the same as with any other marketing research tool – the box is growing instead of being consolidated into the next cure-all. Additionally, until some more research-based evidenced is borne out and studied on online communities, it really makes sense for companies to approach them with the same degree of caution that they would approach any other tool. Finally, while online communities may not require much up-front costs, they often do require significant investment in terms of manpower to maintain.

  2. As a founder and practitioner at Communispace, let me fervently agree with your final point. Companies should let their business objectives drive their choice of market research and social media tools, not vice versa. But based on our experience of having recruited and run over 350 private MROCs, I disagree with you on a couple of points as well. While you’re certainly right that high-involvement product categories lend themselves more to self-forming, organic communities, we’ve found that by being attentive to “social glue,” engaging in very active facilitation, and demonstrating that our clients are listening, we’ve been able to achieve extraordinarily high engagement (avg. 9 contributions/month) from our community members. And while it’s true that *real-time* follow-up and probing is possible in focus groups or via tools like iModerate, it’s the ahas, the subsequent thoughts, and the opportunity for iterative discussion and refinement that makes the longitudinal nature of MROCs so powerful.

  3. Agree with what has been said, especially “Yes, online communities can do these things too—but to say “no other form of research can” is simply untrue.” This is why at EasyInsites we make a clear distinction between CUSTOM PANELS and COMMUNITIES. We are in the business of custom panels, we believe strongly and this is proving out in our business growth that custom panels are the starting point for most companies and it is rare to find one that would not benefit by having their own custom panel with which they can run a wide variety of research without incurring the cost of finding and paying each time for respondents they need for a particular research project. By empaneling consumers and/or customers from existing client databases, websites, etc., they are simply making good use of those who are interested in engaging with that company but who are not the most active and passionate as you will typically find participating in an online community. I am not sure why this distinction is not discussed more often, it seems that there is an all or none mentality in the current industry discussions on this topic even though custom panels are so much more widely useful and affordable and just make good business sense.

  4. Thanks Charles. If it’s any comfort, I for one absolutely recognize that panels and communitiies are 2 entirely different animals. I wonder how often they are confused? Hmmm…..

  5. The difference between panels and communities is not that in one you have more (or less) passionate consumers. You can get passionate consumers for either, and it all depends on your recruiting criteria. The primary difference between panels and communities is that in communities the participants also build relationships with, and are in conversation with, each other.

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