How to Set Up and Manage an Online Research Community

An online market research community (MROC) is a private online space for customers to discuss research related topics on a regular basis. The benefit of a research community comes from the ability to gather constructive, qualitative feedback from a self-regulating, evolving pool of participants. An effective MROC will deploy collaborative tools that allow the community to grow naturally over time. Consumer blogs, forums, bulletin boards, instant polls and news stories are just some of the interactive elements researchers will employ to generate an evolving conversation.

There are three key stages to running an effective research community: recruitment, prompting and moderation. Recruitment takes place at the beginning of the research project, however you may need to continue to recruit on an ongoing basis throughout to compensate for drop-outs and changes to participant commitment. Prompting and moderation, on the other hand, although should be planned prior to the research must be carried out in tandem with the community.

1. Recruitment

Before you can begin research and start gathering data, you must first ensure you have enough participants within your community to provide relevant and insightful feedback. The minimum amount of participants you should aim to recruit is 30. For an engaging and self-sustaining discussion you could engage 300-500 participants when looking at multiple segments.

This takes into account two key factors. The first is that, in my experience, I find that approximately 25% of all community members do not respond or engage with the research. Therefore, a degree of over-recruitment ensures that enough of your participants will be engaged in the discussion for the project to be successful.

The second factor that affects the scope of your recruitment is the type of research. For the most part, MROCs revolve around collaborative, qualitative feedback and thus both the quality and length of responses are likely to be higher. The amount of community members must reflect the analysis capabilities you and your research team possess. If you need large scale, quantitative feedback then perhaps consider a panel instead – as these can accommodate a much larger pool of respondents.

In addition to deciding on the number of community members you wish to collect research from, the other recruitment decision that must be made is where these respondents will come from. This depends on the focus and purpose of your study. Perhaps you want to target a specific subset of your customers, or compare different customer segments. Maybe you want to discover new segments or find out why a consumer group is not interested in your product. All of these factors will influence where and how you recruit.

2. Prompting

The most basic rule of thumb in an online market research community is that the less email based prompting required, the better the research will be. Good communities will have an element of naturally evolving conversations that draw participants back in on their own accord. However, in practice this isn’t always the case. Frequently, researchers find that emails are the most effective method of driving engagement, but there are a number of considerations you should take into account when designing email prompts.

The first, and most important is timing. Email prompts should coincide with the points at which the most feedback is required (such as after a press release, new product launch etc.) However, it is also important to ensure that email prompts are frequent enough to maintain a steady level of engagement throughout the study.

To ensure that both objectives are achieved, I would recommend planning out email prompts in advance. Create a timeline of any major events that you will want to gather feedback on. These will become the cornerstones that drive engagement. In the periods of rest between events, plan to send prompts to participants that have not logged in for a week, roughly once a week.

Once you have developed the timeline, next you should aim to set up as much of the process in advance as possible. At the key points where engagement is required, draft emails and schedule them for bulk release. For the weekly reminders, create a template that your research team is able to send to anyone not engaging in the research as easily as possible.

Finally, remember that just because email is the most commonly method of prompting that does not make it the only available method. Another opportunity to drive engagement (in a much more natural manner) is through mobile push notifications. Obviously, this requires a mobile application and sophisticated back end software. Other, more readily available options to drive engagement include: text messages, telephone calls and social media integration.

3. Moderation

In order to effectively moderate a community, you must first ensure all community members are aware of the basic ground rules. In essence, these should encourage participants to be respectful towards others and their opinions, while also being truthful and honest themselves. After all, the more the community is able to self-govern and grow naturally, the more interesting and relevant the insights will be.

After the community has launched, moderating should be kept to a minimum. Keep an eye on discussions, but try not to get too involved. To retain the natural consumer-led environment, moderators should only be visible to community members in a few select situations. If you want to follow up with an individual participant message them privately and ask if they would be able to clarify their feedback. In addition, if you notice inappropriate behaviour within the community – this too should be handled privately.

However, it is important to be publically visible when introducing new materials and stimuli to the group. Try to coincide these releases with email engagement prompts to ensure participants are aware of the new material and able to progress the discussion on their own terms.

Maria Twigge is a passionate insight and development lead and associate director at FlexMR, applying market research experience and psychological theory to understanding human behaviour in an ever-evolving technological world.

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