WAVES OF CHANGE FOR ONLINE COMMUNITIES
Market research has a proud history of surviving, riding, and sometimes thriving, in response to the macro environment and industry-related change.
This article examines three waves of change which have shaped the inception, growth and evolution of online communities. The ability to adapt and evolve is a form of digital Darwinism, but unlike Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, digital evolution is rapid; the three waves of change in online communities have occurred over just 15 years.
The catalyst for online communities was technological, in the form of the infrastructure developments of Web 2.0, 3G and wireless internet. These technological developments drove far-reaching social and behavioural change. People started taking their computers out of their spare rooms or offices and into the living room, and became comfortable talking to other people online using forums and early social media platforms like Myspace and Facebook.
The more online-savvy research agencies built platforms and methodologies which tapped into this behavioural change. Respondents (as we still embarrassingly called people in 2005 ), who had started to tire of completing long surveys were re-energised by the shiny new communities and more engaging activities of online discussion boards, diaries and polls.
As researchers, we discovered how to ‘virtually’ relax with people in their living rooms and have richer, more adult-to-adult conversations with them, including those who had never – or had stopped – taking part in traditional research.
To build on the momentum of these technological and social changes, online communities also gained impetus in an economic sense. We found front-of-curve clients ready to embrace the new method, and their internal stakeholders were delighted by the immediacy of feedback and significantly lower costs over traditional research.
So, by taking advantage of these technological, social and economic changes, within just a couple of years, online communities were able to establish themselves as a bona fide market research methodology.
Over the next few years, different online community models developed; defined by their size (number of participants recruited) and duration (whether the community was set up for a short / defined period or long / undefined length of time).
The first Join the Dots’ communities were short term and qualitative, often used as a standalone research method for usability or NPD generation work, and they remain a great way for clients to trial a community approach for relatively low cost and time investment.
At the other end of the market sat long term quantitative ‘community panels’, boasting several thousand participants. Participants would almost exclusively complete surveys and the experience was more transactional.
Somewhere in the middle sat our long-term community model, where we typically recruited between 1,000 and 10,000 participants depending on the type, and quantity, of work the client wanted to do.
By 2009, our three external forces had moved to a different state of influence; economic forces now came to the fore with the recession. But with client budgets under increasing pressure, online community providers were able to turn this situation to their advantage by blurring the classic speed-cost-quality trilemma of traditional research.
Communities evolved to offer significantly faster and cheaper insights than traditional methods, but crucially at a ‘good enough’ level of quality to replace them. And so began the second wave of change, the golden age of growth in online communities.
Speed. Ten years ago, a straightforward qual or quant ad hoc project would take four to six weeks from brief to completion. Using a community, that project could be completed in one to two weeks, with smaller briefs being answered within 24 hours. Time was saved at all stages, largely because the agency had a dedicated project team working on the project and the sample had already been recruited and profiled.
Cost. A community client could typically save £100-200k per annum compared with using traditional ad hoc methods. Because clients had effectively purchased research in bulk, agencies could pass a big chunk of the savings back to clients. Recruitment costs were only incurred once at community set up, incentive costs were typically lower, and most projects could be delivered remotely saving on travel costs.
Quality. While communities still couldn’t answer every brief, they did more than a ‘good enough’ job on tactical work like concept testing and as participant numbers increased, more robust quant methodologies were employed. Communities could also raise their game for more qualitative strategic briefs, especially for customer journeys or behavioural and observational work, especially when 4G and smartphone technology enabled high quality video and photo upload.
Another innate advantage of communities was realised during this period; as communities were ‘always on’, we could work in stages, in an agile and iterative way with the same or different groups. Moreover, this approach afforded longitudinal learning, not just at a participant/data level but the agency account team became highly knowledgeable about the consumer, category and their client’s business.
In 2019 we face new rules, new challenges and threats as a result of our three forces. Under sustained economic pressure, clients’ needs are polarising. At one end they need even faster and cheaper answers to simple problems. And at the other they need even higher quality, immersive research to help them break new ground.
Technologically, AI, automation and the cloud computing power offer greater speed, lower costs and the potential to work more effectively with big data. While in a social sense, clients can start to take full advantage of the insights already ‘out there’ on social media and the passively captured data locked up in our mobile phones.
So, can online communities remain relevant in this changing world? We predict they can do more than just survive; they can thrive – if they can evolve into insight ecosystems. Like biological evolution, communities need to retain some of the characteristics which made them successful in the first place.
So, for example, they will still have an opted-in sample; still involve a contracted, continual relationship with the client; but communities need to give researchers access to a much wider range of methodologies and tools to take advantage of technology and social behavioural change.
Within our own insight ecosystem, we are evolving how to ask questions, listen to organic conversations and observe human behaviour.
Ask. Asking questions is the bread and butter of our industry, but we must change how we ask questions of the digital generation. New tools like chatbots deliver a fun, fast and familiar interface, with additional AI features allowing real time prompt and response. Swiping tools replace traditional rating scales by mimicking user behaviour on popular apps. We ask people to tweet, leave product reviews and communicate in emoji, affording a higher level of participation than ever before.
Listen. The tools and outputs of digital listening have now come of age. Our own social intelligence approach combines organic social data with primary research (asking questions) and cultural context. We can analyse organic conversations at scale, ask questions which arise from the raw data, and contextualise to give the whole picture. Qual at quant scale is the new mantra.
Observe. Now there is a need to observe human behaviour to answer those more immersive, strategic briefs. Video-based research captures insight into human behaviours that asking questions alone cannot.
I believe the future is bright for what we currently know as online communities. Success is in their DNA, but they need to evolve into insight ecosystems to answer client challenges which require both agile and immersive methodologies. They must capture authentic, organic insight by listening to, and observing human behaviour, meanwhile breaking the bonds of traditional market research to be more human, more conversational, and more digital. Only through evolution will market research methods continue to help us understand people in an ever-changing world.
Andy Buckley is innovation director at Join the Dots
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