The world wide web and mobile internet are great for market researchers. Send a survey any time and get answers at the moments that matter.
But smart market researchers are already looking beyond questionnaires. Building your own market research online community (MROC) gives you access to customer feedback in free flow, even when you haven’t asked any questions.
Here are just a few of the things you can do with an MROC:
- set up online forum discussions, customer panels, live chats and focus groups
- run long-term diary studies in private or public blog-style formats
- segment the community for targeted research
- get qualitative feedback to support and explain your customer insight metrics
- let customers create their own content about your brand
- gamify community interactions to increase customer engagement
- get ahead of your competitors by understanding your market better
- use community feedback to generate and validate new product ideas
The difference between MROCs and other online communities
There are plenty of online communities that have nothing to do with market research at all, and exist purely as a way for members to connect and share information with each other on topics that interest them.
Then there are official customer communities designed and managed by brands as an extra channel for support services or marketing communications. Unofficial customer communities are more of an emergent phenomenon, created and run by consumers without supervision or help from the brand.
An MROC, though, is purposely designed to be a market research tool. The members aren’t there for support or to hear your latest up-sell. They’ve opted in to your community knowing that market research is its main purpose. As most of your members are likely to be customers, their role is part-way between market research participants and mystery shoppers.
If you design and manage your MROC well, you’ll have a small army of engaged consumers who are keen to help you improve your products and services — and ultimately, your bottom line.
OK, so you’re on board with the idea. Let’s see how it’s done.
Design a community that works
There are some basic things you’ll need to consider before you create your own MROC. Your answers to these questions will depend on your organization and objectives:
Will your MROC be branded or unbranded? An unbranded community delivers honest market insights, without the risk that members will feel obliged to flatter the brand behind the community. But if the brand stays anonymous, you can’t ask your members brand-specific questions without giving the game away.
Will the community be open for anyone to join, or will you invite only specific market segments? Will you restrict membership to existing customers only, or include prospective customers as well? An open community makes it easier to grow your member numbers, but member count isn’t the measure of a successful MROC — actionable insights are.
Will it be entirely research-focused with discussions started and moderated by your market researchers, or will you encourage users to interact and start their own conversations — even if some of those conversations are “off topic”? Communication between members is the glue that holds the community together, so a micro-managed community tends to engage its users less than one with free-flowing chatter.
What’s the benefit or incentive for consumers to become members of your MROC? If you offer no benefit beyond the opportunity to share feedback with your organization, only the most fervent fans are likely to stick around. But if you give members too many high-value incentives, you’ll find that some people sign up for your “bribe” alone and aren’t genuinely interested in communicating with you or with other members.
What information will you collect from community members when they sign up, and what information will members be able to see about each other? Balancing members’ privacy against your desire for information and community engagement is a tricky job. The simplest rule of thumb is: don’t ask for any information you don’t need, and let your members decide how much information they make visible to one another.
Will you let users rate each other so that your MROC members can give feedback about other users as well as about your brand? User ratings let your community members express their gratitude to the most helpful users, or tip you off if somebody’s misbehaving in your online community. And if you connect members’ community standing with a points system, you can even reward the most popular users with special offers or fancy titles.
How will you integrate insights from your MROC into your organization as a whole? Market research and customer insights do much more for you when you connect them to insights from other areas, such as employee feedback and business metrics.
Manage your MROC
To be a successful market research tool, an online community has to engage its members. Much as they appreciate your brand, that alone isn’t enough to keep them interested in your MROC.
You can’t set and forget your online community. If your team can’t spare anybody to tend to it for at least an hour or two each day, outsource the task — either to the firm you worked with to create your MROC, or to a freelance Community Manager. It’ll be their job to create memorable content and start fresh conversations in the community, as well as replying to messages from members and tracking user trends and attitudes.
The market research you conduct through your MROC should be designed and facilitated by trained researchers to make the most of each insight opportunity. Poor market research standards will destroy the value of your data.
You’ll also need someone to conduct wider and deeper analyses of the information your MROC provides. Your Community Manager may fill this role, or you might want to bring in a data scientist. If your MROC provider offers built-in analytics and reporting, the job’s easy enough for someone without specialist training.
Now you’ve read all this, how do you feel about market research online communities? Will your organization use this research tactic, or do you prefer another way to collect market insights?