Editor’s note: Based in Vancouver, B.C., Julie Paul is senior vice president of online communities at Toluna.
Online community panels are becoming ever more popular and are expected to grow by 30-40 percent in 2013, according to Inside Research. Brands increasingly understand the benefits of attracting respondents who are ready, willing and able to participate in survey research and to offer qualitative feedback via on-site activities.
Toluna has developed and managed more than 200 global panel communities (including a panel community of more than four million respondents, which we developed in 2000). Our experience has taught us a number of things that may prove helpful for those considering a branded community approach.
I’ll focus here on custom panels, which eliminate the time and expense of re-recruiting respondents for each research activity, present incremental survey opportunities and provide the means to create deep member profiles.
Before committing to a custom panel, a company should consider going one step further with a community panel, which will enable panel members to engage with one another and brands via multidimensional on-site conversations. Such conversations enable companies to obtain additional qualitative insights and ultimately a deeper understanding of the target audience. While communities offer a myriad of benefits, including a loyal fan base, companies benefit most when they capitalize on the value of hybrid information. Before engaging in building a custom community, you may want to consider a few points:
1) Define your purpose. As you consider building a community panel, take time to figure out exactly what you want to accomplish. Do you want your community to provide deeper customer insights, offer information about your competitors, provide ongoing feedback on customer experiences or help you fully define your brand advocates among a tight group of advisors? Too many companies skip this mission-critical step. Lacking a clear purpose, communities end up poorly defined and thus fail to provide satisfying results.
Your purpose will guide you in determining how and when to engage with members and what activities to make available to them on-site. Knowing your purpose will also help you build the research plan and understand your staffing needs.
2) Integration of big data. Sophisticated back-end databases and panel management systems, coupled with fully customizable and personalized Web interfaces, enable companies to engage multiple audiences all within a single interface. Companies that want to interact with customers as well as prospects may now consider a single community, in which they would present branding selectively to customer members and offer prospects a non-branded option. On-site activities can likewise be permissions-based and customized.
3) A structured approach to a loose conversation – engagement. Your members are critical to your success. Keeping them engaged saves you time and money, so it deserves a structured approach that changes as conditions change – whether you base the program on response rates, community metrics or corporate conditions. Keeping members engaged begins with a defined plan for touchpoints each month. At the outset, members need to know what they’ve signed up for – how often you’ll engage with them, what topics you’ll discuss and so on. It needs to be a conversation. Too often, clients skip this step for budgetary reasons or because they are unwilling to share information. Those who make room in the budget and are open about the ways members affect company objectives will reap the rewards of a vibrant community that provides meaningful insights.
4) Unlimited qualitative opportunity. Qualitative research goes beyond the online focus group. Communities encourage members to post comments to discussion boards, engage with other members while on-site, chat with moderators directly, use Webcams, upload photos and videos and more. These interactions produce qualitative insights that can add context to individual profiles (for example, you can see which members post comments on discussion boards and can connect that information to the rest of their profiles). This type of “qual light” chatter differs from deep-dive, in-depth qualitative activity, but provides valuable ongoing insights.
5) Qualitative can drive better quantitative research. In addition to generating new ideas, qualitative research can be used to drive more thorough quantitative research studies. A “pre-quant” online discussion board or chat can generate very helpful directions for designing your survey such as defining pick lists, i.e., desired features, attributes, etc. The great thing about an online community is that you can establish this type of qualitative touchpoint very quickly – pre-survey qual, then survey, then a post-survey qual to uncover the why behind the numbers.
6) Setting the mood – bring the best to your brainstorming. Community panels provide ideal forums for brainstorming sessions. Brand users enjoy giving candid feedback. Companies have used their communities to generate new ideas, provide testimonials for ad campaigns and inspire new features and products.
7) Online, mobile, does it matter? We have our phones with us at all times, making the devices a natural fit for market researchers looking for real-time feedback. Moreover, your members may engage with your member community and visit your site via their mobile devices whether you ask them to or not!
8) Communities can actually be even more social. Online communities are inspired by social media. So communities can link to Facebook and post members’ activity to their walls, letting their friends know what they’re doing — and thus drawing in new members. Companies that have a presence on social media can recruit friends and followers to participate in a community without leaving Facebook and can easily tap into the social data. At Toluna, we call this PanelPortal Connect.
9) Make the case for ROI. Online communities can help you save a great deal of money on your market research program. (Think of the value of one profitable product idea that comes from your own customers.) While online communities won’t replace all ad hoc research studies, they can be used for many of them. A good rule of thumb: Expect community members to be a bit more enthusiastic about your brand than a typical customer. For those studies where you need a good read of the less enthusiastic, use a parallel source of sample, such as an access panel. Evaluate the research that can be replaced with online community studies and add in the incremental research opportunities that become possible. In most cases, the value far exceeds the price paid. Many companies view their panels as assets that can be expensed over time, rather than all at once.
10) Evolve. By nature, communities are evolutionary. The research you conduct, the methods you use and the topics you explore will change over time. Our clients report that new stakeholders often emerge, adding their voices to keep communities vibrant and successful.