Always-on Research

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Social media has gained considerable human relevance. User-created content,

citizen journalism and online social interactions (e.g. conversation, collaboration, participation, sharing, connecting) are embedded into the daily lives of consumers. With the different semantic waves of the web, the entire market research process and industry has undergone clear changes.

Market research has changed from asking questions to having conversations with consumers. Online Research Communities have proven to be a viable environment to engage with consumers as well as marketing executives in a connected and participatory way. What makes research communities unique is that they assemble consumers to interact in an asynchronous longitudinal

setting by applying social media techniques. Companies outsource tasks to a crowd (e.g. product and service creation and testing) in an open call in order to bring consumers inside organizations all the way up to the boardroom. Research communities bring true consumer connect between marketers and their target groups as they use interactive tools to tap into social interactions between people, and allow a more equal relationship between researchers, brands and participants.

Why are research communities so hot today? Just like any information technology they bring

automational, informational and transformational value (Day 1994; Grover et al. 1996; Mooney et al. 1996). They may bring automational effects because, for example, communities allow quickly tapping into a sample of consumers on a specific topic that presents itself, which makes getting the answer to a specific question more efficient. The informational value emerges from the fact that the inherent quality of consumer understanding we get is of better quality. Consumer input is multimedia, embedded in

people’s life context as well more reflected and reasoned. Transformational outcomes of research communities lay in the fact that research communities allow to perform tasks which were

previously not possible without the asynchronous technology and engagement over time. Examples are in combining research communities with mobile technologies as well as integration in social networks.

And still there is a friction between the ability and desire to conduct research communities in our industry. The status of online research communities today is comparable to teenagers and their first sexual experience. Everyone says they are doing

it, everyone wants to do it … but in the end noone really knows how to do it well. This situation is reflected in the Greenbook Research Industry Trends 2013. 45% of researchers indicate they have plans to use online communities in the future (ranking 1st out of 17 emerging technologies), while 40% of clients claim the lack of knowledge is still a limitation for them. (GRIT 2013) Hence, there is a need for an overview and some

concrete tips on how to run online research communities.

Online Research Communities: types & applications

When positioning online research communities in the social media research space we should distinguish them from the natural communities and social networks where content and conversations self-generate between consumers. Researchers can tap into these for

knowledge via social media nethnography methods like social media listening, scraping and ethnographical, qualitative observation.

Positioning Online Research Communities

Online research communities assemble consumers purposefully though; consumers who wish to engage

and co-create with brands. Communities are upon invitation-only and with a marketing and research motivation. These private research communities focus on a specific product category, brand or customer segment. Online research communities allow marketers to

observe, facilitate and join conversations between consumers. Consumers enjoy this more participatory research approach and the interaction re-introduces the social context often missing from other research approaches that conceive the consumer as subordinate and approach them in a top-down isolated fashion.

In terms of taxonomy there are

several labels and definitions for research communities used in practice today, which may lead to some confusion and some may even debate whether all of the labels classify as real communities. The labels range from online research communities, over market research online communities (MROCs), bulletin boards, blogs, community panels, ongoing communities, etc. (see table 1). What they do share is that they are all some sort of asynchronous discussion platforms but they vary in terms of duration (short term and ad hoc to on-going), intensity of moderation (longer lasting communities are less intense or community panels are even just a form of access panels), direction of conversations and the number of research techniques used (ranging from synchronous online discussion groups, surveys, diary blogs, one-on-one interviews).

As mentioned, research communities can vary in terms duration and intensity. But when do you need a short

versus a long term community? As often is the case in research it depends on the management and research objectives marketers have. Research communities can be used throughout the marketing mix for understanding, developing, implementing or optimizing marketing offers (see figure 1). For consumer insight, for example, communities are used at the fuzzy front end of product innovation or for consumer immersion. In a development marketing phase new value propositions are developed for product concepts, brands or activation campaigns. Implementation communities are organized when products or services are about to be launched and need market testing, e.g. for beta-testing or in home user tests. Finally research communities can be used for gathering feedback on customer experience and satisfaction processes.

It’s not about technology, let’s bring the consumer into the boardroom

Often times the focus these days is on technology and tools while what the common ground real communities should share is engagement. Unlike internet access panels, participants in a research community talk to each other

as well as to researchers and marketers. Consumers exchange ideas in their own consumer language and raise questions and answers which researchers sometimes did not even ask. In other words, the social context

and interaction is important and provides a holistic understanding. This can only be achieved by means of creating engagement at different levels, however. First, there is a need for natural engagement which implies that consumers have to identify with the topic or the brand under investigation. A second form of engagement that is needed is method engagement. This implies that researchers should propose questions in a fun and challenging way to increase participation and quality of input (e.g. gamification, infotainment, challenges). Finally, research communities need to create impact engagement which implies to create impact at the client management side.


Engaging with participants - natural & method engagement

Many practitioners focus on the absolute number of people they connect with in research communities. While important we argue that sample size is subordinate. What is really important is the number of interactions

per discussion thread which can only be created through engagement with consumers. Setting up an online research community is technically easy, but in order to make interactions useful and effective, researchers need adequate processes for (Schillewaert et al.2011): Natural engagement:  Purposeful sampling. Researchers are advised to create natural engagement by sampling brand fans or consumers who show an interest in the topic when recruiting for research communities. True these consumers are “biased”, but at least they reflect an illustrative consumer reality and generate in-depth discussion.

 Small is beautiful and better short and intense. Depending on the research objective research communities can last a couple of weeks or months or be on-going – they can have 50 or a several hundreds of participants – it depends. But one needs to be aware that longer and larger communities need higher engagement and require more resources. Lurking can increase with too many participants or an over-whelming number of posts. A paradox? Not really. When participants see too much information they disconnect because they are convinced their opinion has already been voiced and adds less or no value.

Method engagement (1):

 Adapt the context and  environment to the target group. For example, let participants choose colors and the name of the community or put topics and questions on the discussion agenda. Foresee a social corner (next to the actual discussion space) where participants can interact “off topic”. If needed moderators should guide participants to such a social corner. In doing so the community is for and by members.

Build the community. Once participants are screened and recruited, “kick off” sessions are important to build engagement on a social as well as informational level. Such sessions discuss the research agenda and objectives, the client is presented and participants get acquainted.

Engage as many stakeholders as possible. Engaging members of the marketing team, senior management or a well known expert from the industry or academia to participate in the discussion spurs activity levels tremendously.

Method engagement engagement:(2):

 Moderators should develop the C-factor – the “C” of community manager. Good moderators have good writing skills, are creative and apply “social media” in human interaction. Moderators need to be aware that community discussions can last for too long and moderators need to pay attention to steering interaction. There is an important role for researchers and community moderators in building identification with the community, keeping up the engagement with the topic to keep the discussion going while not letting members over-socialize and drift away from the researchers‟ agenda. Too strong social relations among members of a research community can be counterproductive as they lead to irrelevant discussions.

 What we ‘do’ to people is as important as what we ‘ask’ them. Give participants tasks to perform and play games with them which generate insights. We can make people generate information for us by introducing more fun elements and creativity. In his book Brain Rules (2008), Dr Medina posits that we often ignore how the brain works, and so do we researchers. If we would apply some of his 12 rules to how researchers can generate information, we could get more productive. As an example, there are five rules that are particularly relevant for market research: (1) „exercise boosts brain power‟ (rule #1); (2) „we do not pay attention to boring things‟ (rule #4); (3) „stimulate more of the senses‟ (rule #9); (4) „vision trumps all other senses‟ (rule #10); and „we are powerful and natural explorers‟ (rule #12). In doing so researchers play on the engagement and brand relation of participants. Allow participants to do what they like, surprise them with something special and check out their reaction.


Engaging with internal stakeholders – impact engagement

If we are completely honest, a lot of the research that is commissioned does not have the necessary impact. Unfortunately, research has commoditized as clients search for „more and cheaper‟, not true transformation or added value. Still, the core of market research should be to bring the voice and

ideas of consumers inside organizations all the way up to the boardroom. Because of their very nature online research communities allow to do this, but researchers need to create internal engagement and change management. Market research studies are not only about formal presentations, knowledge management and communication programmes. The informal „hall talk‟ is an equally powerful way to have managers use and share intelligence. The most powerful is when research is a conversation starter

and generates lively stories about customers. This can be done in three phases:

Phase 1: Engage the internal audience via positive disruption. Create a friction in terms of contrasting management knowledge with actual market situations via e.g. games and quizzes with managers. Let executives participate in a consumer quiz to learn about consumer findings. By answering questions about consumers they receive social status (e.g. a badge), achieve different game levels and unlock extra information when progressing – at least something worth talking about..

Phase 2: Inspire executives by allowing them to observe, facilitate and even join the consumer conversations in the community. Allow executives to participate in the community.

Phase 3: Activate managers to increase their usage of market research studies in their daily job by means of using creative and inspiring sessions and organize internal news streams and infotainment (e.g. via twitter updates, newsletters, infographics, mood boards).

By creating internal engagement executives’ knowledge will increase, they will converse about the study at the water cooler and will continue to observe consumers beyond the mere report (De Ruyck et al., 2011).

Conclusion Market research is in a state of limbo. Research communities can help to bring the

consumer into the boardroom by means of creative intelligence generation methods, making sure research is a conversation starter to stimulate management responsiveness. We need „enacting‟ research communities that create ENgagement and ACTivation

among clients as well as participants, through gamification, stories and experiences.


Day, G. (1994). The capabilities of market driven organizations. Journal of Marketing, 58, 4 (October), pp. 37–52. De Ruyck, T., Knoops, S., Schillewaert, N., Coenen, G. and S. Rodrigues (2011), Engage, Inspire, Act, ESOMAR Congress, Amsterdam. GRIT (2011). Grover, V., Teng, J., Segars, A.H. & Fiedler, K. (1998). The influence of information technology diffusion and business process change on perceived productivity: the IS executive‟s perspective. Information and Management, 34, 3, pp. 141–159. Medina, J. (2008) Brain Rules. Pear Press. Mooney, J.G., Gurbaxani, V. & Kraemer, K.L. (1996). A process oriented framework for assessing the business value of information technology. The DATABASE for Advances in Information Systems, 27, 2, pp. 68–81. Schillewaert, N., De Ruyck, T., Ludwig. S. and M. Mann (2011). The Darkside to Crowdsourcing in Online Research Communities, CASRO Journal, pp. 5 – 9,

Want to know more about research communities?

Tom De Ruyck Head of Research Communities +32 9 269 14 07

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