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How to Build an Effective Online Research Community

How to Build an Effective Online Research Community
By: Robert Kelly
Updated: July 29 2022 12:18
Posted: December 21 2020 12:02

Table of Contents


As online research communities become mainstream, it is essential for companies to understand how to effectively build these communities in a sustainable, quality-controlled manner.

As the world becomes more connected, customer-centricity must be built into the fabric of the organisation. Communication with your customers should be an everyday exercise, rather than a quarterly research report delivered to employees via email. Online communities provide this link to target customers for any type of research you may need to carry out on a day-to-day basis.

Building an Effective Community

So, how do you build one that fits your needs? Well, you need to start by answering the following questions:

  • Branding: 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.
  • Open or Closed: 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.
  • Focus: 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.
  • Incentives & Engagement: 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.
  • Privacy: 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.
  • Open Feedback: 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.
  • Integration: 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.

Avoiding Pitfalls

Once you have decided on these key areas, you can begin to build an effective community that best fits your needs as an organisation. However, according to the Market Research Society, there are certain pitfalls that must be avoided to achieve long-term success with this research method:

  • Under-resourcing your community:
      • Without their voice being heard, community members will get frustrated
      • Personalised and well-thought out incentives are essential for a long-term ROI on research communities
      • Deliver tailored rewards relative to their time offered in the community
  • Neglecting engagement:
      • Understand why they’re there, functional and emotional drivers
      • Don’t overwork them, or underwork them
      • Provide transparent feedback on what their data is contributing to
  • Not measuring impact and tracking progress:
      • What is not measured cannot be managed
      • Companies often don’t attach tangible metrics to things like:
        • Stakeholder impact
        • Value creation
        • Cost efficiency
        • Loss prevention
        • Hero stories
  • Not leveraging your community as a brand:
    • Design a brand identity for members
    • Have a clear mandate and mindset for members
    • Create stories that members can align with

Future of Communities

In the 2017 GRIT Report, 60% of the world’s leading brands had an online insight community. There was market penetration of 82% by 2018, meaning online research communities have escaped their ‘niche’ title in favour of being a ‘mainstream’ methodology employed by almost every company around the world.

The future will demand more of these communities. According to the MRS, the three key challenges in the coming years will be around integration with other forms of customer data, obtaining on-demand/real-time insight and the agility required from new technologies to meet research demand. 

If these challenges can be met, customer-centricity will be an achievable feat for any consumer-facing brand looking to improve business decision making or increase their likelihood of success.

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