Editor’s note: George Dichiaro is a vice president and senior research consultant at research firm Market Strategies International, New York City. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “Let’s MROC and roll: Online communities for qualitative research.”
Market research online communities, or MROCs, to use the punchy acronym, are currently one of our fastest growing qualitative research tools. They are often described as online focus groups or bulletin boards on steroids.
However, since the term was coined several years ago, there is still a lot of confusion about MROCs. A source of this confusion is that MROCs is a fairly ambiguous label and open to interpretation. As a result, we’ve thrown around a lot of vague and evolving nomenclature. People have said to me: “Can we do a panel?” “Wouldn’t it be cool to tap into a social network community?” And my personal favorite, “What we really need is an ad hoc, longitudinal open network community – kind of like a panel.”
The problem with using the word panel to describe an MROC is that it leads many to think about a traditional, large panel of thousands of members who are periodically tapped for either quick-read or in-depth quantitative surveys. The panel has no end-point and is sometimes also used to find respondents for either online or in-person qualitative research. “Community” and “social network” also mislead since they are currently buzzwords that too easily conjure up social media research, such as language and trend analytics and other social listening tools.
There are three critical components that distinguish MROCs from panels and social media/network communities:
- It’s a closed community. A limited number of people (maybe 50-150) are invited to participate based on specific recruiting criteria – bringing together like-minded individuals to discuss and learn about things that are highly relevant to them, thereby creating an intensely engaged community.
- Participants’ involvement lasts for a finite period of time, usually four-to-12 weeks. Each week they are given assignments, which can take the form of blogs; forums; missions in or outside the home; diaries; photos and videos; reactions to stimuli; or anything else that helps to meet the objectives of the research.
- It’s marked by three-way communication. Community manager → participant; participant → community manager; and participant → participant. The community manager starts by setting the rules and the tone of the community, then makes personal connections with participants and gives assignments. Critically, the manager encourages community members to interact with each other until it becomes an organic community of opinions and ideas that takes on a life of its own.
MROCs are here to stay and use will continue to trend upward. The benefits cannot be ignored:
- MROCs save research dollars and time in the long run. In one MROC, we can cover several objectives that would have otherwise required several separate focus groups or online bulletin board projects.
- Because of the long term, iterative nature of the research, it is possible to delve and probe much deeper into key areas of interest. Participants, researchers and clients benefit from the incubation of ideas and hypotheses over time that allow for more follow-up and greater insights.
- The range of research needs addressed with MROCs is wide and varied – from early stage A&B exploration to concept evaluation to ideation to user experience/product assessment to path-to-purchase to persona development. MROCs can also be used as a precursor to quantitative research as well as a source for follow-up, in-person qualitative research (e.g., ethnographies) with selected community members.
- The MROC platforms available to us are getting increasingly sophisticated, which allows researchers to more effectively explore consumers mind-sets with seamless tools and more creative assignments.
So let’s roll with MROCs … or whatever you want to call them!