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Communities Are Simply Conversations

When you consider using today’s online research community platforms, remember that they’re flexible of purpose because the best insight communities strip right down to the heart of what a community is all about: simple conversations.


Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas Series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Stephen Thompson will be speaking at IIeX North America (June 13-15 in Atlanta). If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX NA. Click here to learn more.

By Stephen Thompson, Executive Vice President, Ramius | Recollective

Almost two decades ago, the marketing industry was starting to buzz about something new, something huge.

Brands were waking up to a new millennium in which consumers had started to use a rapidly-expanding global internet to connect and talk to each other about them and their products. These were conversations that the brand hadn’t initiated and often wasn’t included in. Most alarmingly, consumers weren’t always being nice. In fact, the anonymity of the internet meant that people were more secure and confident than ever to be brutally honest!

Fast forward to the present day, past some spectacular social media fails and a veritable library of books on the subject (some like Outside Innovation and Cluetrain Manifesto are worth a read). Brands are now using online communities in a myriad of different ways to engage their consumers, but it’s always with the same purpose: to be part of the conversation. Because when connected, you can explain, influence, strengthen and learn about your consumers.

As I now observe and work in the marketing research industry, there are some obvious parallels. For the past few years in GRIT reports and at conferences, there’s been a similar growing buzz about online community technology and how it can be used to power new and exciting research. While the latest tech often includes features specific to researchers’ unique needs, qualitative research shares the same purpose of engaging people in conversation that is fundamental to traditional marketing communities. So on the face of it, the fit is a natural one.

Yet I talk to researchers every week and there’s still a lot of misunderstanding about how simple a research community can be. Many share concerns about a preconceived notion of size and complexity, about how much effort is required to moderate it and how to manage the data. Whatever the cause of those concerns, there are five misunderstandings about online research communities that we need to debunk:

  • They don’t need to have a large number of people
  • They can be any duration (including quick 3 day “popup” communities)
  • They don’t have to socialize every contribution a participant makes; it can be (and should be) selective
  • They can be much more than a discussion forum or bulletin board
  • They don’t need to be “always on”

What’s important to remember is that community = conversations. All you really need are two people: a moderator and a participant. Everything after that can be tailored to your research needs, experience and resources.

It’s great if participant responses are socialized to the community members, but sometimes that isn’t appropriate. Likewise, it’s great if you can maintain those conversations on an ongoing basis, but often they’re for a specific purpose and have a natural end. So when you consider using today’s online research community platforms, remember that they’re flexible of purpose because the best insight communities strip right down to the heart of what a community is all about: simple conversations. Kendall Nash from Burke and I will talk more about this in our presentation “Chameleon Communities” at IIeX – we hope to see you there!

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3 responses to “Communities Are Simply Conversations

  1. Hi Stephen, I’ll have to disagree with you that communities are simple conversations. Of course conversations are an essential part of a community, but a true community goes beyond that. I believe the reason why of the confusion is that “community” has become a hot topic within the research industry (as we can clearly see in many GRIT reports), and people have started saying they have developed research communities when they sometimes are developing other things such as discussion groups, online forums or even online panels.

    In my opinion, a group of people becomes a community when they start interacting with others, collaborating or working in pro of a common goal or objective. There should be stickiness, a common motivation or interest to keep them engaged and participating in medium and long term (I’d say anything more than 2 weeks). If you put together a group of people for 3-5 days, they can collaborate, work for a common goal (eg: co-create a concept, evaluate a campaign, etc.) , but at the end of the day, the short time period is not enough to strengthen the relationship between the participants (or with the brand) in order to create a true community.

    In terms of type of research communities, I would say there are 5 main types:

    1 – “Pop-up communities” – these look more discussion groups that last 3-5 days or max of 1-2 weeks. Number of participants can start at 10-15, but usually will not be more than 100. Level of interaction and collaboration between members depends on the study goals, and there could be activities completed individually or by the group.

    2 – Panel communities – as previous type, these are not truly communities since the level of interaction and collaboration between members is very low or nonexistent. Usually panel communities have thousands of members, are used for quantitative studies and the main activity offered to participants is survey participation. These panel communities can be hard to engage in long term, depending on the level of engagement between the participants and the brand; otherwise its sustainability depends on a strong incentives system.

    3 – MROC (Market Research Online Community) – these are the most popular ones, used by researchers especially for co-creation, innovation and collaboration with consumers. They can be branded, non-branded, usually will have 100-300 members, and can last from 3 months to 1 year. Of course, depending on the success rate of the community, it can last more time. These communities can be very effective when well managed and nurtured. Branded communities where users have a strong relationship with the brand (eg: brand fans and heavy product users) can be even called as “consumer boards” or “consumer consulting boards”

    4 – “Mobile communities” – these are communities created by a group of users who interact with the community through a custom mobile App. They receive notifications, complete tasks and missions, join discussions, etc. all through their mobile devices. The number of members depends on the project goals and objectives, and these are medium-term (3-6 months) to long-term communities (1 year or more).
    ** I’m not referring Mobile communities as online communities that use responsive design technologies allowing users to access the community through a mobile-friendly portal. I’m talking about communities implemented through native mobile apps that are installed by the users on their mobile devices.

    5 – “Social communities” – these are large scale communities with usually thousands of members. They work more as a social network and the technology platform behind the community should be sophisticated enough to offer social features to connect users with others, create dialogues, forums, discussion boards, surveys, and include tools for members’ engagement such as points system, gamification, virtual store, etc. Considering the investment needed to build and maintain a social community, it is more recommended for long-term projects.

    Well, there are some other variations, but I believe the above covers the main types of communities researchers should consider when planning to create their own research communities. For those with low budget, there are still some cheap options such as creating Facebook groups, but it will lack appropriate tools to manage, moderate and develop research studies with the community.


  2. Great reply Adriana, though I’m not sure we’re in disagreement. Your point that communities are formed “when they start interacting with others” is my point exactly – that the fundamental definition of a community is the conversations within it. You may ask people to collaborate together or work toward a common goal, but what makes that successful is how well you can encourage and stimulate the conversation between them. Social is at the core. A great community breaks down barriers between people, it creates an environment in which they feel comfortable to share and converse together. The technology, duration, purpose, methodology…they’re all just flavours to meet a specific need but they are all communities.

    So the five types of community you mention do indeed fit within that proposition and certainly what we see people building out. The detailed descriptions you gave are great and reinforce my statement “when you consider using today’s online research community platforms, remember that they’re flexible of purpose”.

    I hope you can come and hear the presentation and let’s have a drink and continue the conversation 😉

  3. Stephen, thanks for the feedback. I see your point… maybe the title “Communities are Simply Conversations” made me react and I wanted to reinforce that conversations are at the core of a great community, but researchers should have clear objectives when they start thinking of building a community, either the pop-up ones (which I prefer to call discussion groups, even that it has social and fun elements incorporated into it) or the long term social communities.

    The selection of the technology platform and the community partner, who can provide from recruitment to engagement strategy, moderation, etc., depends on those objectives. After working for 12 years helping clients build research communities, I see that some clients just need a more traditional panel to fulfill their surveys, but after sometime they realize they don’t have the internal resources (from budget to enough time of their team) to dedicate continually to nurture the community in medium-long term. I’ve also seen other clients very satisfied keeping large research communities for many years. Anyhow, I’ll be at IIEX next month and will be happy to continue the conversation. 🙂

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