Editor’s note: Rachel Belinky is community strategist at market research firm Ipsos SMX, Cincinnati. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “Leveraging social wisdom for better community insights.”
As market researchers we intrinsically understand the importance of engaging consumers in every stage of the product life cycle, from ideation and co-creation through concept testing, marketing and innovation. Consumer engagement is particularly crucial when it comes to market research online communities (MROC’s), where ongoing relationships are often the most influential factor in determining depth of participation and quality of insights.
Look no further than some of the largest and most buzzworthy social networks to see how the idea of relationship building continues to guide innovation. In his town hall Q&A addressing Facebook’s new “empathy” feature, Mark Zuckerberg said the feature would be less about up or down voting, and more about the ability to “express empathy.” Why? Because “… your friends and people want to be able to express that they understand and that they relate to you.” And in a recent Advertising Age article, Pixlee CEO Kyle Wong advocated that brands form “advisory boards” made up of top influencers, rather than consumer focus groups because this “not only helps develop deeper relationships with your top influencers, it also allows you to truly understand and leverage the creativity of how customers use your products, leading to co-creation.”
Engagement-based community practice hinges on relationship building, both among members (“peers”) in the community and between members and the community manager. But how do community managers establish trust and ongoing engagement with participants, while at the same time maintaining high standards in research design and moderation? The answer lies in leveraging some basic tenets of social media – combined with qualitative techniques in online moderation – to establish unique connections.
The importance of trust in the context of an online research community
The level of trust that is built throughout the course of a community lends itself to deeper insights and increased compliance. Community respondents are more likely to provide an honest and detailed response (compared to traditional qualitative studies) and more compliance (compared to traditional quantitative studies). If a stranger asks you to do something, you are less likely to oblige than if a friend of yours asks you. The same principle applies to community vs. other traditional methodologies.
Furthermore, an insight, more often than not, has an emotional component to it. For instance, someone might think that a woman colors her hair for the first time because she wants to change her look, when in fact, her reasons may be much more emotional than that. Maybe she wanted to become the woman she always dreamed she could be or she wanted to stop being defined by everyone else’s perceptions. In order to get to a deeper emotional insight, you have to ask questions that warrant a personal explanation. You can’t expect to receive an introspective response by asking, What was the reason you first colored your hair? Instead, you may provide an example of the type of response you are hoping to receive from members, or share one of your own personal stories so that people feel comfortable being just as open and honest as you were with them.
Lessons from the deadly sins of social media
In addition to seeking inspiration from specific social networks, we also regularly apply the larger tenets of social media in our daily moderation and activity planning to enhance engagement. Take some of the “deadly sins” of social media – those committed by people on social networks who don’t typically have a large following or very much content engagement. Let’s see how just three of these social media sins can translate into a lesson on community engagement:
1. Mundane subject matter
You ate Wheaties for breakfast? Walked the dog? Stuck in traffic? Bored at work? These posts are not funny, thought provoking or clever, and are often posted with way too much frequency.
How does this translate to community engagement? Make the content interesting by using creative methodologies or your unique voice to make the topic or the way in which you ask the questions more engaging. And don’t overburden your members!
2. Poor quality media
Posting out-of-focus pictures of soupy-looking casseroles that no one would ever want to eat is not doing anyone any favors. A homemade culinary experiment may not taste as horrendous as it looks but based on the quality and composition of the picture shared, you couldn’t pay me to take a bite.
How does this translate to community engagement? Images are an incredible source of engagement, whether for research activities or personal images you may choose to post for engagement. Be very thoughtful when choosing your images.
3. Never responding to others
Nobody likes to participate on social media if it’s not actually “social.”
How does this translate to community engagement? When a member tags, private messages or directly e-mails the support mailbox, it’s the community manager’s job to respond to them as soon as possible. No one likes to be kept waiting and no one wants to feel like they are being ignored. Make responding to your members a priority.
Balancing engagement and objectivity
As we’ve seen, sharing personal stories and photos is one of the most effective ways of creating an engaging environment in a community. This goes for the community manager as well, who should strive to be seen as an actual person rather than just someone behind a screen simply asking people to participate in research. Sharing more of who you are offers the opportunity for your members to connect with you in all sorts of ways, developing a stronger relationship and more trust.
But as all researchers know it’s also paramount to remain objective to obtain quality insights. To remain objective and neutral when probing in research activities, one rule we swear by is the “if at all” or “if any” rule.
If a member says that she doesn’t like a specific shampoo brand and would never use it again, you might ask, “How, if at all, could this brand improve their product to make you interested in purchasing it again? Your responses are always so detailed, @NameOfMember – don’t let me down now!” or “In what ways, if any, could this brand make their products more relevant to you? And please be as detailed as possible, @NameOfMember – you’re always incredibly insightful and I would love to know what you think!”
Not only are we remaining neutral in our questioning, we are also reaffirming to the members that we are reading what they post and value their contribution in the community.
Ultimately community is all about creating an environment where people are encouraged to express themselves and have the ability to relate to others. Market research online communities are no exception. Building trust and relationships allow for a more open and honest dialogue with consumers. Combined with best practices in qualitative moderation, it’s a win-win environment for generating better, faster and richer insights.