First published in Research World March 2010
Branded online research communities are increasingly used by companies to keep in touch with their customers. What have they learned so far?
More and more companies use online research communities as a way to get closer to their consumers, gain fast feedback and save some money as well. Examples are legion. The online game Modern Warfare 2 hired a Twitter liaison to run its community in order to interact with fans and improve the game. EasyJet has an invitation-only community for research across the whole business. Research topics are introduced twice a week and reported the following week, explains UK Commercial Manager Sophie Dekkers. “It allows us a direct channel to our customers and provides real-time responses, which is invaluable in such a fast-moving business.” Primarily easyJetCommunity is used for qualitative discussions but it also includes polls and quick surveys for data support. Since it was launched two years ago, it has run over 200 topics.
The benefits of these market research online communities (sometimes called MROCs) are easy to identify for Ray Poynter of The Future Place consultancy. “Speed and depth of responses and moving away from clunky quantitative questions towards discussions with customers. Plus a lower marginal cost of research; one more question does not cost very much.”
Sometimes interaction with customers goes well beyond feedback. Swarovski combine user co-creation approaches in new product development with online market research. A different approach is demonstrated by Microsoft, where communities serve as a place for the company to engage with its online marketers. Jenny Leahy, lead for the Microsoft Advertising Community Team comments “Our primary goals are to inspire, educate, and support our readers and those who engage with us in social media, in our forums, and on Twitter and Facebook.”
Voice of the customer
WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell responds enthusiastically when discussing MROCs. In his latest annual essay, he described traditional research methods as long and cumbersome, writing “Many CEOs despaired that by the time the solution had been identified, the problem had changed. Using the internet, however, the research process can be transformed and responses obtained almost instantly.” Meeting him at WPP’s London head office, he confirms his vision. “Yes, I firmly believe that this is the way forward, and that the use of such applications will only increase.”
Tamara Barber, data analyst Consumer Technographics at Forrester Research, considers MROCs a valuable tool because they infuse research with the customer’s voice. “And there is a real element of flexibility as well, since researchers are able to run short-term focus-group like discussions or chats in real time, as well as asynchronous projects where members complete activities independently in their own time. Communities are a resource that can be leveraged across multiple parts of a company, for multiple projects.”
Although still relatively new (these communities first burst onto the scene in 2006) users of branded MROCs have already some key learnings. Creating a social brand allows Microsoft to capture the feedback it needs to adapt products or services. Furthermore, the community enables the company to protect and build its brand reputation by keeping a pulse on what others are saying about it and providing a response. Says Leahy “We have learned that you can build fierce advocates for your brand by simply responding quickly with the answers your customers need.”
For Dekkers the learnings are too vast to identify specifics but she also stresses the importance of responding to discussion points. “This does not need to be on every topic, but to provide some business outcomes so members feel that their contribution is valuable.” That itself seems to be a greater reward than any incentive. EasyJet ran a trial of parallel recruitment emails, one with and one without the incentive. Interestingly the uptake was split 51% to 49%, says Dekkers. “So the incentive is not the reason people choose to join the community, but the fact they want to be part of improving the customer experience with easyJet.”
Companies that work with MROCs have no doubt that their ROI has been boosted. Leahy says that Microsoft’s community allows it to reach out to and to support its advertisers. “We’ve seen an 8% revenue lift six months after advertisers joined our community.”
Dekkers is similarly positive. “The fact we’ve been able to discuss so many topics so quickly means that we have been able to stretch our budget further. We’ve used it to deliver quick answers to the business that traditionally would have required focus groups and/or quantitative research, with their extensive lead and delivery times and additional cost.” Which doesn’t mean that easyJet is replacing traditional research with the community, Dekkers adds, but it’s making research much more effective, and means less amendments mid-project or repeating projects due to poor survey design or language.
When asked if branded MROCs could be a threat to WPP’s Lightspeed Panel, Sorrell is quick to dismiss the thought. “You mean that it enables clients to bring research in-house? It depends on what clients want to be and what they want to do themselves. But no, I don’t think they will go down that road.”
Keeping it fresh
Some caution is necessary according to Poynter, “Because members/participants become fans, they are good at saying that something is a bad idea and generating new ideas. But when they say an idea is good they can’t always be relied on to be representative.”
Barber comments “These communities require planning and metrics to stay on top of the health of the community, and make sure that it’s not being overtaxed or underused. Content needs to be fresh for members to remain engaged in the process,.”
For although respondents (if we can still call them that) are enthusiastic, the question is indeed: how long before the novelty wears off? EasyJet’s Dekkers is not too worried. “At the moment respondents remain enthusiastic because we vary the topics, have an interesting category to discuss, and provide feedback on business developments. We refresh the community every year as there is a degree of fatigue/drop-out, but this varies by respondent.”
Community is about constant relationship building, agrees Neahy at Microsoft. “Keep your customers engaged with the right details, rewards, etc., and you’ll keep them enthused.”
Dekkers has no doubts about the future of easyJetCommunity. “It has been such a success, we’re now exploring options for rolling this into a Pan-European community, which brings with it a whole raft of language and translation challenges.”
Research panels and communities can complement each other, thinks Barber. “I expect communities to become an offering we’ll see from more market research firms. I’d advise any vendor new to the space to expect a learning curve to understand how to do it well.” Poynter too expects communities to grow strongly for a couple of years at least. “Not being involved in them won’t hurt some research agencies, but it would make sense to get involved.”