Why You Should Be Using Online Communities


The Covid crisis has forced research clients into new ways of working and while shutting the door on some research methods, it has opened up opportunities for others.

With face-to-face focus groups a ‘no go’ or ‘difficult’ in the era of the lockdowns, alternative digital methods have stepped up to offer the same level of rich insight. Online communities are one such method. They are sometimes wrongly seen as a backup alternative to focus groups, rather communities can be an effective and robust tool to gather qualitative insight in their own right.

What Is An Online Community?

An online community is a way of conducting longitudinal research with a small number of consumers via an online platform. Questions and activities can be uploaded at the start of each day for respondents to complete at a time throughout the day that suits them. Respondents can typically see each other’s answers and can interact with other respondents, sharing their ideas and promoting discussion.

The size and duration of an online community can vary. When designing a community it is always best to keep in mind the mass of information and insight to analyse and explore post-community. This is why we recommend that it is often best to focus on a smaller, more manageable number of respondents to ensure you don’t drown in information and lose out on valuable insight in the process.

What Are The Benefits?

  1. Longitudinal insight

Unlike many other research methodologies which provide a ‘snapshot’ into peoples’ minds, online communities typically take place over a number of days, often a week or two. The core benefit of this is the ability to gather opinions and views that have been well considered and have perhaps even evolved through the course of the week.

This adds another level of validity to respondent answers. While in a focus group, they may say they love the idea of a new product, once they have taken the time to consider how it would actually work in their real-life, they may provide a different response. This means insight gathered can be more reliable than traditional face-to-face methods. Considering the purpose of market research is to find out about genuine, real-world behaviour rather than claimed behaviour, this makes it an ideal method.

When a week isn’t long enough, online communities can still be used as the online platform can often be re-opened at a later date. There are no real time limits on this, giving researchers flexibility to go back and ask further questions, providing consumers are still willing to engage.

  1. Flexible Design

One of the key benefits of an online community is the flexibility it affords. While it is useful to have a plan for what needs to be covered over the course of the research, it is helpful to have the ability to be flexible with this. When a Design Thinking approach is being taken for NPD for example, using an online community is an ideal way of moving ideas and concepts on through the course of a week. At the start of the week you may still be looking to explore consumer frustrations in a market, and by the end you may have developed a concept that addresses a real gap in the market.

As well as interacting through the online platform, online communities can also be valuable in conjunction with other techniques, encompassing them and in doing so covering a number of core objectives. Focus groups, for example, can be run at the end of the community as a way of tying off the process and allowing respondents to give any final thoughts and tastings can be added midway through the process.

  1. Real Time Insight

 Another element of flexibility this method allows is the ability to probe respondents’ answers. It goes above and beyond a survey by allowing moderators to read respondents’ answers in real-time and ask them specific questions on their responses.

close up eye

Gone are the days of vague and ambiguous written answers: online communities allow moderators to really drill down into what respondents mean to check, probe, explore and unpack – without time pressure.

This interactivity and flexibility means targeted insight can be gathered rapidly and efficiently.

  1. In-home Observation

As well as using open-ended questions to find out about consumer thought processes, there is also often the option to use tools such as scales and heatmaps. Participants can interact with images, highlighting where on the screen there were drawn to, what specific components they like about a design and which they don’t like. This is a really valuable tool in helping get precise feedback on designs and product concepts.

Of course, what draws many clients in to using an online community is the prospect of a rich archive of photos and videos. With products used in the home, for example in cooking in the kitchen or apply make up in the mirror, this is an ideal way of getting into consumer homes and really getting to grips with how they are using specific products and ultimately understanding the role these products play in their lives.

woman putting on eyeliner

Showing beauty products being applied, or products actually being put into a child’s lunchbox allows insights into real world usages and can inform many parts of the proposition. This is something which is normally limited to a small number of participants in an ethnographic study due to the challenges of interpreting the sheer size of the data gained.

By allowing consumers to show us inside their homes via their smartphone, the online community method can allow real-world, longitudinal insight without time and cost intensive face-to-face ethnographic techniques. It is not merely a digital alternative to qualitative methods but a valuable technique in its own right.

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