Mark Simon lists some essentials to bear in mind when planning to build an online community.
“We’re awash with data, we just need more insights,” is a common cry among big brands in today’s Big Data world. Insights can give the brand a clear competitive advantage, inform and steer new concepts and campaigns, and provide the answers required to make proactive, incisive and strategic decisions. And when a marketplace is crowded and clear insight is required to deliver commercial cut through, businesses are increasingly turning to bespoke online communities.
Communities represent the very best the digital age has to offer – pools of switched-on, mobile, carefully recruited respondents that are ready engaged with the idea of helping companies improve and who are open to taking part in a two-way, long-term development process, often in real time. Communities can be shrunk and expanded in accordance with a brand’s customer demographic or target audience, and compared to a traditional panel, the level of engagement with these consumers is generally greater, meaning the resulting insights are likely to be richer, more revealing, and ultimately, more relevant.
Building a successful online community and keeping it engaged with the brand is close to a full-time job. Successful incarnations have a dedicated ‘community manager’ – someone who constantly updates and refreshes the site, answers questions or queries, kick-starts conversations and debates, and who designs engagement strategies such as newsletters or motivational awards. The trick is to be convincing in your attempts to relate and engage at consumer level, conveying that all-important personal touch. Neglecting a community is the fastest way to achieve unrepresentative, inaccurate results.
Bringing in a professional research agency is one option to establish and maintain an online community. That said, by its very nature the online community is a place to share and be involved. Brands are actively encouraged to play their part and not delegate every last activity out to their provider. If opting to go it alone, there are some essentials to bear in mind when planning to build an online community; one that will withstand the rigours of close and consistent customer scrutiny:
In order to recruit committed, engaged and unified respondents, the business must be open and upfront about its aims and motives, clearly describing the extent to which the online community will contribute value to the company, the personal benefits to each participant, how often they can be expected to contribute and the format those interactions are likely to take.
A united front
Truly sustainable online communities are borne from standard panel set-ups when members feel united by a common interest or sense of purpose. Turning a 2D survey into a multi-dimensional discussion is one way to get a better depth of response back from members. Giving them the freedom to instigate discussions on topics that interest them, as opposed to pre-specified structured subjects, will also result in a greater level of engagement while delivering some unexpected insights back to the business.
Design for online
Constant advancements in technology platforms and internet behaviour brings with it a demand for new thinking around survey design. Questions need to be clear, concise and easy to understand, and layout needs to be simple. Bias, differentiation and orientation need to be built in carefully. In visual terms, make use of interactive graphics, gaming and video to help engage, entertain and stimulate respondents.
Research goes walkabout
The survey is no longer static. Nowadays there are more and more mobile devices accessing the internet – from smart phones to tablets. Customers are more switched on and tuned in than ever before, which gives researchers the chance to engage in real time, at short notice, on a more ad hoc basis and receive direct answers quickly. Any online community should be developed to ensure members can communicate by any means that suits them best – that way, you’ll ensure better engagement and participation, and ultimately, better results.
Keeping eyes on the prize
Early profiling will help determine what will keep members incentivised. Once they’re openly sharing about themselves, brands will gain a better understanding of their reasons for taking part, all of which can be incorporated into an incentive and rewards strategy. Cash and loyalty points are the most obvious and proven mechanisms, but ‘soft’ rewards such as status, knowledge, responsibility and social connectivity count too.
Having got the fundamentals right, brands can then begin to tap into their purpose-built, living, breathing online community for all sorts of insights into how their customers think and behave. You can use it as a focus group, ideas bank or as a design and development consultancy, or as a conduit to knowing and understanding your customers better – their buying habits, motivators, likes and dislikes, how they converse with each other and interpret your brand’s messages. Keep an open mind and you will undoubtedly discover a whole new dimension of customer interactivity you may never have known existed.
Mark Simon, managing director, global technology practice at Toluna.