We do enjoy running online communities, either pop up ones that are live for two weeks and then disappear or longitudinal panels that give us access to audiences on an ongoing basis.
Our recent project with the BBFC hit the news wires at the end of last year and drove a lot of people to get in contact asking about online communities and how to get the best out of them.
As is always the way, the answer to that question is “it depends…” it depends on your objectives, the time you can commit, your budget, your timescales etc etc. However there are some universal truths that I thought I would try and encapsulate into a blog post.
1. Make sure you know exactly what you want your community to deliver
Make a plan, plot out what you are trying to achieve, what the KPIs are and then exactly how you plan to succeed. It sounds like common sense, you would never jump into a focus group without a well thought through discussion guide, but it can be easy with an online community to think “we will get the audience together and then just ask them loads of questions”. But it’s better to have a well thought out calendar of activity rolling out weeks into the future (depending on the length of the project).
When creating this plan, be respectful of your participants, don’t just keep pushing the boundary of what is OK to get them to do, they have given up their time to answer your questions. Treat their time (even if it is compensated for) like a valuable resource.
2. Listen, learn, adapt
Now you have your well thought out and resourced plan, be prepared to change it when new information comes in. A bit like going on a long car ride, know where you’re going, and know the route you want to take, but adapt if a new route looks like it might be better.
This is one of the beauties of an online community versus other methodologies. You can actively review, moderate, analyse and adapt all the time. It is work intensive and requires quite a bit of resources, but you need to act like a good focus group moderator, who can pick up on something important that isn’t covered in the discussion guide and explore it further.
You should always be ready to do this in an online community if you want to get the most out of the participants and leverage their adaptable functionality.
3. Keep it fresh
Long term research communities, like any good relationship, and also any good methodology, need to be kept fresh and engaging if it is to reap rewards. If all you do is ask text based questions and responses on a daily / weekly basis about pretty mundane things you are going to get a disengaged audience very quickly. You need to keep things fresh and interesting.
Vary your question style, ask for different types of responses such as video and audio responses or image collages. Sometimes it’s quite nice to ask your questions or simply check in with participants via a video - this reminds them they are actually communicating with a person, encouraging their engagement!
If you are running a community that is looking at mum’s baby product choices feel free to mix it up by asking them what their go to music is in the car to keep their child entertained. It is possibly nothing to do with your actual topic but it keeps them engaged and interested (but see point one on being respectful of their time, don’t make these compulsory or too frequent).
Have a discussion area where the panel can talk amongst themselves (these can be super insightful as well as engaging for the panel).
Also keep bringing in fresh participants (if methodologically sound) to inject new insights and energy into the conversation.
4. Pick the right platform
There are A LOT of platforms out there that you can use to host your online community on, each has pros and cons depending on what you are looking for. If you have a clearly defined set of objectives and also a pretty good idea about the type of questions and features you want to ask this should help you narrow things down. Be prepared to change the list of things you want however, as sometimes demos can throw up things you didn’t think you needed till you saw it!
As with all platforms there is a range from the reasonably priced to the very very expensive. You just need to work out what you are willing to pay for, write those things down in a list and then get a demo (nearly all platforms will give you a guided online demo). Your task is to then find the cheapest solution that gives you everything you want.
If you are interested in running a market research online community, give us a shout, we’d love to chat to you more and see if we can help. firstname.lastname@example.org