Ilka Kuhagen

Online Communities are growing in relevance. Clients love customer communities, researchers use online communities and are blurring the line between old-fashioned qualitative and quantitative approaches. Hybrid approaches that include data entry through diaries, mobile and online research are conductible at any time and through different channels. They provide valuable real-time footage of videos and photos. However, they are often based on high numbers of participants and they are becoming increasingly quantitative in their nature. The following article demonstrates how mini communities even at a global level – the so called Small World Communities – manage to provide the client with deep insights and valuable input for strategic decisions by using qualitative mini communities with a small number of respondents that is well targeted and deeply researched.

Taking a purely qualitative approach, new ways of data collection – online and mobile – combined with the long-term research approach of research communities, the Small World Communities lead IKM to the following case study:

Mixtable: A long-term study that was conducted for a start-up company in Germany: providing valuable feedback from 15 participants during a phase of 7 months accompanying the company to design their service

The Mixtable Mini Community started out in March 2013 when Mixtable was still more an idea than an established business. The idea of Mixtable is to provide a platform for busy young professionals to meet new people offline by mix and matching groups of 3 women with groups of 3 young men to meet and enjoy each other’s company. A core target group of 20 respondents started off, of which 15 participated over the whole period of seven months during which the start-up idea developed until it became a final homepage and concept ready to be launched.

The idea was that questions could be raised from the entrepreneurs to the respondents during the process of building the company. It seemed a natural fit to combine mobile and online research for this young target group. Thus via a mobile app participants could send photos, emotions, short texts and videos while an online forum was used for longer and more detailed contributions and discussions around the idea and service. The group environment allowed participants to build on each other’s thoughts and extend the discussion.

In the onset of the study the community was used for people to introduce each other online, bond as a group and build trust with the moderator. During the introduction phase participants could familiarize themselves with the technology and the platform.

Not only for a new business, but in general there are always a lot of questions in the beginning of designing a new service or product. So mobile diaries were used to capture the current situation in the market. By using a mobile app participants went out and documented a night out with friends from the moment of them thinking about going out, deciding who to go with, getting ready, being out until going back home. In the diary the respondents captured all of this as well as their emotions; supporting this all with videos and photos which they could upload directly using the mobile app. This provided huge footage and helped the client to better understand the current situation as well as potential unmet needs.

The diaries were followed by a full week of online discussion trying to explore the market and figure out whether there was a market for the original product idea. Information gathered helped the client to understand the excitement or frustration and probe on some things that were mentioned in the mobile diaries. Unmet needs were uncovered and after introducing the concept the insights gained were feed back to the start-up company who would use it to build their website for the online service.

Once the first version of the website was finalized, respondents were asked to go through the process of signing up and using the website in order to provide further feedback not only on the appeal of the website, but also about the registration process, provided communication and payment options. The clients could make use immediately of this feedback and adapt the website accordingly, probing the respondents in real-time and working together in the Mini Community to optimize the concept.

While the clients were working on the redesign of their website, finalizing the service and preparing the launch, the community was used to gain ethnographic insights. During the time of finalization the members of the community were asked to attend a Mixtable and capture the experience of the evening with the mobile app. This was later followed by an online discussion with all the members participating and sharing their experience. The client used this feedback to fine-tune the website and the service before the actual launch of the service.

Seven months in and at the final phase of the community, the client checked one last time how the final logo and website were accepted within the community before launching the final product.

While this is a real-life example of a start-up, it shows clearly the use-case for any new product, innovation or new service that is about to be marketed. Wherever a new market strategy is needed, a Mini Community would be very helpful to accompany this process. Furthermore, it can be easily done in one as well as in several countries using the online and mobile approach in a global setting with small Mini Communities around the globe.

In a global context another case study was generated: Global Dogs Unleashed. Think Global Qualitative Associates self-funded this multi-country project to research role of dogs in the lives of their owners in Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Mexico, South Africa, UK, and USA.

Again based on mini communities of 15-20 participants in 12 countries over the course of multiple weeks and in some regions even months after adding further stages. The real Small World Community was born. Diary entries, photos and videos of everyday live with their dogs allowed the research team to get immersed deeply. Based on some identified areas for improvement, product ideas were discussed and even new product designs tested online. This is a standing global dog owner community created to co-create or quickly get feedback on concepts from several countries. New product ideas can thus be “disaster tested”, even in a time sensitive environment. It even allows to pull respondents from different countries into subgroups for discussions.

This shows the potential for an ongoing community with small numbers. Usually based on 15-20 respondents that participate in the community for several weeks up to several months. An ongoing community does not need to be massive in scale to be effective. Thus, a Mini Community allows qualitative research in multiphase or multi-client projects even in a multicultural and multilingual environment. This kind of method allows for the use of the full qualitative toolbox with projective techniques, ideation and co-creation.

Ilka Kuhagen is Co-Founder of Think Global Qualitative