Research in a petri dish: Learning from communities
by Josh Bernoff
From my Marketing News column.
The problem with market research is that, while it can generate some pretty actionable insights, it’s expensive. If you do surveys, it’s always a struggle to get enough people to generate a large enough sample without breaking the bank – and when the survey’s done, pray you don’t find out that there was some question you forgot to ask. For qualitative feedback, there’s always the trusty focus group, but to make sure those insights are on target you’d better do eight of them all around the country, and there goes the budget again.
There must be some way to do research with a group of your customers who want to stay in touch, are on call whenever you want them, and respond well to follow up questions.
In fact, there is. It’s called community research. Here’s how it works. You recruit 300 people, or 1,000 people, into an online space. Like a focus group, they know they’re there because they fit your description, and to help you make decisions. But unlike the focus group, it’s an ongoing relationship. So you can ask them for help continuously.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. While you can do it yourself, it’s a whole lot easier to work with a vendor that runs these research communities, like Communispace or Passenger. They’ll recruit the people, moderate the community, and help you generate the insights. Expect a six-figure annual bill. But what are you spending now for surveys and focus groups? Read on, and then figure out if this is a better, possibly cheaper substitute.
Here are some real-life cases of companies that have used research like this.
Hyundai convened a community of car owners (built and run by Passenger) and asked them about programs to help buyers affected by a recession. “Should we let you return the car if you lose your job?” they asked. “Actually,” the community replied, “If we lose our jobs, we’re going to need the car to find a new one.” Result: the Hyundai Assurance Plus program, which actually makes up to three car payments if you lose your job.
Intercontinental Hotel Group has three research communities managed by Communispace, and they’re a key part of the company’s market research – and marketing. The frequent travelers in the group contributed real-life photos – not only did IHG save on stock photo fees, but the collateral has generated a 24% lift in room revenue. IHG also learned that community members had no interest in Twitter as a channel to communicate with the company, so the hotel chain scrapped that part of their social media plans.
Companies are even using communities for product design. Charles Schwab used a Communispace community to decide that its checking account should include fee-free ATM use. Del Monte Pet Products used a MarketTools community to design on the shape and ingredients of a doggie snack, Snausages Breakfast Bites. TurboTax’s popular bookmarks feature came from a discussion that members initiated themselves in the company’s “Inner Circle” tax prep community.
Naturally, research communities are not a panacea. With only a few hundred members, they not as representative as demographically balanced surveys. You’re hearing from the loudest members of your audience; shy people will be poorly represented. And some of the emotional elements you can get from a focus group may not come through as clearly if you’re not a pane of glass away.
But research communities can do things no other form of research can do. You can ask followup questions to get clarification or more detail. You can look at the profiles of members, to put their questions in context. And most interestingly, you can see what they want to talk about. Although there are plenty of moderator-initiated questions in a research community, most of the chatter is member-generated, and much of the most interesting learning comes from those discussions.
If you’re going to go forward with a research community, there are a few questions you should ask yourself (and if you want more detail on this, see Forrester’s document on the topic, “Use Online Communities For Strategic Insight” by Lisa Bradner and Cynthia Pflaum. [Full access for clients.])
First, decide if you want to focus on traditional research or innovation. Communities for traditional research should match your target group and complement your other research. Innovation communities should be stocked with more vocal types.
Second, decide if the community should be private or public. Private communities, like the ones Communispace runs, aren’t visible on the open Internet, which keeps those insights away from competitors. But public communities can attract a much larger audience and grow organically.
Third, figure out exactly whose going to be in your community. A community of customers can help you with issues of loyalty and usability, while a demographic community (say, moms) can help you see what marketing will work best with prospects.
And if you worry about whether these collections of consumers function like real communities on the Internet, you shouldn’t. One of the most amazing stories we’ve heard was from the research community of cancer patients run by Communispace for the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, a group of cancer centers including Memorial Sloan-Kettering. Having learned enough from a group of early-stage cancer patients, the cancer centers started a second community of more advanced patients, and asked Communispace to shut down the original. But the members of the original community objected – they didn’t want to leave their friends behind. To them the community wasn’t a research project, it was a support group. (Communispace and NCCN left it running, of course.)
Do your other research tools generate passion like that? Not likely.