Tom De Ruyck and Niels Schillewaert

Often the focus these days is on technology and tools while the common ground real communities should share is engagement. Unlike internet access panels, participants in a research community talk to each other as well as to researchers and marketers. Consumers exchange ideas in their own consumer language and raise questions and answers which researchers sometimes did not even ask for. In other words, the social context and interaction is important and provide a holistic understanding. This can only be achieved by means of creating engagement at different levels.

First, there is a need for natural engagement which implies that consumers have to identify with the topic or the brand under investigation. A second form of engagement that is needed is method engagement. This implies that researchers should propose questions in a fun and challenging way to increase participation and quality of input (e.g. gamification, infotainment, challenges). Finally, research communities need to create impact engagement which implies creating impact at the client management side.

Engaging with participants – natural and method engagement
Many practitioners focus on the absolute number of people they connect with in research communities. While important we argue that sample size is subordinate. What is really important is the number of interactions per discussion thread which can only be created through engagement with consumers. Setting up an online research community is technically easy, but in order to make interactions useful and effective, researchers need adequate processes for:

1. Natural engagement

  • Purposeful sampling. Researchers are advised to create natural engagement by sampling brand fans or consumers who show an interest in the topic when recruiting for research communities. True these consumers are “biased”, but at least they reflect an illustrative consumer reality and generate in-depth discussion.
  • Small is beautiful and better short and intense. Depending on the research objective research communities can last a couple of weeks or months or be ongoing – they can have 50 or a couple of 100’s of participants – it depends. But one needs to be aware that longer and larger communities need higher engagement and require more resources. Lurking can increase with too many participants or an over-whelming number of posts. A paradox? Not really. When participants see too much information they disconnect because they are convinced their opinion has already been voiced and adds less or no value.

2. Method Engagement
If not naturally present, engagement has to be created via the research methods used:

  • Adapt the context and environment to the target group. For example, let participants chose colors and the name of the community or put topics and questions on the discussion agenda. Foresee a social corner (next to the actual discussion space) where participants can interact “off topic”. If needed moderators should guide participants to such a social corner. In doing so the community is for and by members.
  • Build the community. Once participants are screened and recruited, “kick off” sessions are important to build engagement on a social as well as informational level. Such sessions discuss the research agenda and objectives, the client is presented and participants get acquainted.
  • Moderators should develop the C-factor. The “C” of community manager. Good moderators have good writing skills, are creative and apply “social medial” in human interaction. Moderators need to be aware that community discussions can last for too long and moderators need to pay attention to steering interaction. There is an important role for researchers and community moderators in building identification with the community, keeping up the engagement with the topic to keep the discussion going while not letting members over-socialize and drift away from the researchers’ agenda. Too strong social relations among members of a research community can be counterproductive as they lead to irrelevant discussions.
  • Engage as many stakeholders as possible. Engaging members of the marketing team, senior management or a well-known expert from the industry or academia to participate in the discussion spurs activity levels tremendously.
  • What we ‘do’ to people is as important as what we ‘ask’ them. Give participants tasks to perform and play games with them which generate insights. We can make people generate information for us by introducing more fun elements and creativity. In his book Brain Rules, John J Medina posits that we often ignore how the brain works, and so do we researchers. If we would apply some of his 12 rules to how researchers can generate information, we could get more productive. As an example, there are five rules that are particularly relevant for market research: ‘exercise boosts brain power’ (rule #1); ‘we do not pay attention to boring things’ (rule #4); stimulate more of the senses (rule #9); vision trumps all other senses (rule #10); and ‘we are powerful and natural explorers’ (rule #12). In doing so researchers play on the engagement and brand relation of participants. Allow participants to do what they like, surprise them with something special and check out their reaction.

Engaging with internal stakeholders – impact engagement
If we are completely honest, a lot of the research that is commissioned does not have the necessary impact. Unfortunately, research has commoditised as clients search for ‘more and cheaper’, not true transformation or added value. Still, the core of market research should be to bring the voice and ideas of consumers inside organisations all the way up to the boardroom. Because of their very nature online research communities allow to do this, but researchers need to create internal engagement and change management.

Market research studies are not only about formal presentations, knowledge management and communication programmes. The informal ‘hall talk’ is an equally powerful way to have managers use and share intelligence. The most powerful is when research is a conversation starter and generates lively stories about customers. This can be done in three phases:

  • Engage the internal audience via positive disruption. Create a friction in terms of contrasting management knowledge with actual market situations via e.g. games and quizes with managers. Let executives participate in a consumer quiz to learn about consumer findings. By answering questions about consumers they receive social status (e.g. a badge), achieve different game levels and unlock extra information when progressing – at least something worth talking about.
  • Inspire executives by allowing them to observe, facilitate and even join the consumer conversations in the community. Allow executives to participate in the community.
  • Activate managers to increase their usage of market research studies in their daily job by means of using creative and inspiring sessions and organise internal news streams and infotainment (e.g. via twitter updates, newsletters, infographics, mood boards).

By creating internal engagement executives’ knowledge will increase, they will converse about the study at the watercooler and will continue to observe consumers beyond the mere report.

Market research is in a state of limbo. Research communities can help to bring the consumer into the boardroom by means of creative intelligence generation methods, making sure research is a conversation starter to stimulate management responsiveness. We need ‘enacting’ research communities that create engagement and activation among clients as well as participants, through gamification, stories and experiences.

Tom De Ruyck is Head of Research Communities and Niels Schillewaert is Managing Partner USA and co-founder at InSites Consulting.