Explore customer understanding through online research communities

Reaching consumers wherever they are and on their own time can be a competitive advantage for brands. After all, some questions can be answered through technology and do not require in-person visits.  That’s where online research communities come in: Consumers and brands can connect to exchange ideas no matter where each person is located.

In this article, I discuss the following:

Of course, not every research study is best done through online research communities.  But, online research communities of passionate consumers can bring the voices of the customers to the table and keep them there.

“It’s kind of like what we are doing with work,” said Matthew Handegaard, data scientist at Voxpopme, on an episode of “Reel Talk.” “There’s a shift to remote, and there’s a shift to remote in qualitative research.”

How communities have evolved in research

Online research communities build relationships with consumers, which wasn’t always seen as a good thing, said Diane Hessan, founder of C Space, which was the first company to create online communities for market research in 2000.

“At the time, the idea was that you would ask someone a question once,” Diane said. “If you build a relationship, they would be biased, and they would tell you what you wanted to hear. But, when you build an ongoing relationship they are actually significantly more honest.”

What’s the definition of an online research community?

“A research community is a digital space where people interact over time in three dimensions,” Diane said.

  • The company can ask questions
  • A consumer can give unsolicited advice
  • Conversations happen between members of the community

“In a community, you can say, ‘you just asked me that, but by the way, here are three other things that I want to say,” Diane said.

"In market research, the purpose of the community is to give people an opportunity to have a voice in the future of the company that is sponsoring the community." - Diane Hessan

“There’s so much you can learn from the conversations that consumers are having with each other,” said Jenn Mancusi, Voxpopme’s CRO.

Eric Santos, vice president of sales at conversational insights leader Voxpopme, said that communities could be:

  • Branded communities
  • Category communities

Read next: What’s the purpose of an online research community?

Why you should have your own research community

Eric said that having your own research community has the following benefits:

  • Higher response rates
  • Shorter time in the field
  • Long-term cost savings
  • Historical data
  • Rich participant profiles

“The No. 1 reason – happy participants equals better quality data,” Eric said.

Read next: Creating Loyalty with a Customer-Centric Mindset

How big should an online research community be?

It depends, but bigger is not always better.

“We have people ask, ‘why don’t you have a 1,000-person community, or a 2,000-person community, or a 1-million-person community?'” said Diane. “If the community were smaller, it actually increased participation. Our research team was constantly looking at what is the ideal research community size to maximize the number of responses?”

"If you run a 500-person community well, you can get more responses than from a 100,000-person community." - Diane Hessan

To find the right number necessary for a community, ongoing testing is essential, Diane said.

The difference between an online research community and a customer community?

It’s basically what the name suggests. A customer community consists of people that use a brand already and are customers. The community is narrower in membership. An online research community is a bigger slice of society and consumers.

Read next: Research recruitment: Finding the right research participants for your study

The advantages of online research communities

Matthew said one key to online communities’ success is giving consumers an actual voice. Often, businesses focus on their needs, what they are trying to accomplish and how to get there. But online communities work best for businesses when respondents feel involved, respected, and valued.

“I’m focusing on the respondent,” said Matthew. “Making sure that our research subjects have the tools that they need to provide our clients with the answers to the questions that they are asking.”

Read next: Our checklist from experts: Building a team the right way

What makes a good online research community?

An online research community was started when Hallmark – a client of Diane’s – invited consumers to brainstorm with internal team members.

“So that they could have conversations with Hallmark and with each other to give Hallmark a continuous connection to customers,” Diane said.

Successful online research communities have several key pieces, including:

The right community members

No matter the project, your research must have the right type of respondents.

“The respondents need to have chosen us as well,” Matthew said. “We need to put ourselves out there and show people what we have to offer.”

“Not every respondent has the same voice,” he said. And some respondents prefer different types of surveys. Some prefer questionnaires, some prefer asynchronous video, and some prefer focus groups, for example.

Market research online communities are often built on the foundation of:

  • Being out there and available and forming relationships between people of similar interests.
  • Referrals – often, market research online communities grow because participants invite others they know are interested in the topic.

“They are more likely to participate than if we were going to be doing recruitment in a more classical style through advertising online only, for example,” Matthew said.

Read next: How to write good screener questions

The relationship

Good online research communities are a two-way street. Brand representatives and consumers are building a relationship. They interact, share value, and are present.

The best communities are the ones where respondents and companies have a mutual agreement that they both agree to. Here’s what respondents can get from the survey and what’s asked, and here’s the company’s benefit and role in the process.

To have that right relationship, the respondents, the research providers, and the company conducting the research need some basics in their relationship:

Diane said it’s important for participants to know who is on the other side, which is why transparency about who runs the community is so important.

And circle back with respondents. Tell them what impact their responses had, what was done, or why something wasn’t done.

“All of those things are ways to increase the chances that you get real magic and ultimately real insights into your responses,” she said.

Read next: The importance of genuine relationships to understand customers

The timing

How long will it take to get responses? I know I see it all the time: People want everything now, now, now. Is that study done yet? No. But existing online communities can help with that. Diane gave the example of letting the community know of an upcoming board meeting and that you might need their help around that time.

Read next: Trendspotting: Seeing and understanding trends with consumer insights

Be engaging

“You can have a great community, but if all you are doing is surveying people, it’s boring,” Diane said. “You don’t want to be in a community and just get bombarded by surveys.”

Instead, come up with creative ways to get insights. Be engaging. Make it fun. Diane gave the example of asking female consumers of makeup to:

  • Take a picture in the morning
  • Another after makeup was applied
  • One throughout the day
  • And another at the end of the day

“People could literally put together a diary of their day,” Diane said. “We could see their journey, and what we saw was extraordinary.”

"They are really dedicated if you run the community well." - Diane Hessan

Diane said that keeping community members engaged the right way and at the right levels also helps companies move fast.

“Let’s say you have a community of 500 people, and you have 400 or 450 people who are actively participating; there’s so much that you can do,” Diane said.

You could sit in a board meeting and might wonder what consumers would say. Just launch the question to the community.

“And literally in an hour, you can get responses from a couple of hundred people,” Diane said. “Especially if you say ‘we have a big board meeting coming up and have some really critical decisions to make. Please check in tomorrow in case we have any questions.'”

Read next: What is video research?

The use of video

A huge advantage of online communities through video is that brands can connect with consumers who live elsewhere and don’t just happen to be local to the office where the insights team is located. They have a certain level of authenticity.

"In speaking they can show us their face and we are able to connect what they are saying with how they are saying it."


Seeing body language and facial expressions can help researchers gather even more insights. Nick Graham, head of insights at Mondelez, mentioned a similar story on his podcast episode. Respondents said, “yes, that sounds like a good idea,” but their expressions told a different story.

Once again, it’s a mix of using the right technology – including automation techniques – but the human researcher is needed to make sense of it all.

“You can’t ignore it as if it was just charts and graphs alone,” Jenn added about video answers.

Matthew added that seeing participants also gives you a level of validation and verification.

“Does this person line up with what this person is saying?” Matthew said. “It’s much harder telling a fib in front of a camera than pushing radio buttons in a survey.”

Read next: Data quality in research

Showing versus telling

Online community members on video can also show what they are doing or what products they are using.

“It’s behavioral research versus attitudinal research,” Matthew said.

In this clip from ” Reel Talk, ” Annie Pettit, chief research officer at E2E Research, mentioned that it could be more accurate to ask people to show you on video what’s in their medicine cabinet instead of asking them and hoping they’ll remember correctly.

Knowing when to use a market research online community can help us get better insights. Sometimes it might be a mix of an online community and other research techniques.

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What’s a question you’d like to ask consumers?