Begin With a Head Start: Five Common Traps for New Moderators and How to Avoid Them
By Greg Heist, Chief Innovation Officer, Gongos, Inc.
Web communities are one of the hottest trends in the field of marketing today. One only has to look at the growing number of conference sessions discussing community-driven platforms to realize that the era of the web community is clearly upon us.
Many companies who were early advocates of communities used them for marketing purposes, centering their use on creating strong brand advocates and exploring brand-related communications. Many — if not most — communities still exist today with this very purpose in mind. However, like any rapidly evolving product, web communities are not only growing in number but, they’re diversifying in their range of applications.
In particular, it is becoming clear that a new generation of web communities is emerging. These “next gen” communities have evolved from brand-building tools into innovative market research environments. However, this evolution in application has brought with it many new challenges and expectations
Of course, to meet these higher expectations, this kind of “next generation” web community needs to be more than an inviting and engaging space on the Internet to build brand equity among a group of consumers who have interest in a particular product. In addition, this new breed of web community requires:
- a platform infrastructure that permits unlimited flexibility to employ qualitative and quantitative research techniques within the community.
- an analytical approach that rigorously mines the massive amount of information in the community and translates it into insights that can drive real-world changes in the way a client does business.
In short, clients have begun to demand that — similar to any other research tool — web communities deliver a solid ROI and demonstrate the capability to provide insights that drive real organizational change.
The creation of a cutting-edge research environment that delivers these types of innovative results has been an exciting challenge, and I’d like to share some insights we’ve gained along the way.
Why are communities so popular?
For those of you who aren’t aware, a web community is a carefully-selected group of consumers who agree to participate in an ongoing dialogue with a particular corporation. All community interaction takes place on a custom-designed website. During the life of the community — which may last anywhere from six months to a year or more — community members respond to questions posed by the corporation on a weekly basis. These discussions, which may take the form of qualitative “dialogues” or even quantitative surveys, are augmented by the ability of community members to talk to one another about topics that are of interest to them as well.
The popularity and power of web communities initially came from several key benefits:
- Engages customers in a space where they are most comfortable, allowing clients to interact with them on a deeper level
- Uncovers “exciters” and “eureka moments,” resulting in customer-derived innovations
- Establishes brand advocates who are emotionally invested in a company’s success
- Offers real-time results, enabling clients to explore ideas that normal time constraints prohibit
- Creates a forum where natural dialogue allows customers to initiate topics important to them
Why “Next Gen” Web Communities Have Evolved into Market Research Platforms
While it is true that traditional market research provides tremendous insights into the attitudes and opinions of customers, it also comes with its own attendant limitations.
First, traditional market research is a time-consuming undertaking. Even relatively simple studies can take three months to complete. More complex research might take upwards of six months or more from initiation to delivery of results. Of course, while there are situations where there is sufficient lead time to warrant waiting that long, in today’s competitive environment, having this kind of lead time is an increasingly rare luxury.
Additionally, doing good research is a fairly expensive undertaking. With budgets continually under scrutiny, only the most important projects can justify the cost of research. Of course, this means that a multitude of smaller—but in many cases just as important—decisions simply can’t be researched. As a result, a company might get some big decisions right, yet continue to fail because a larger number of poor decisions are made without fundamentally understanding what customers really want.
Add to this the limitation that, historically, a traditional market research study is a point-in-time event. You might conduct a large quantitative study or conduct six focus groups and then never talk with these customers again. Under such a paradigm, the appealing and valuable idea of longitudinal learning from customers is effectively impossible.
While traditional research will always have a valuable place at the table, the clock speed and competitive nature of today’s marketplace begs for a way for corporations to be able to get large numbers of employees in direct contact with customers on an ongoing basis.
Additionally, web communities provide companies with an innovative way of creating a customer-centric organization by putting employees into direct contact with consumers from the comfort of their own desks.
Since communities provide such tremendous advantages in speed, flexibility and 24/7 access to consumers, they provide the organization with the ability to be highly agile in its decision-making and highly prudent in its spending.
Web Community 2.0: A Holistic View of the Consumer
The next-generation web community model has the potential to provide companies with a truly holistic view of the customer. By “holistic view of the customer,” we mean that communities allow companies to see consumers as they truly are: complex, demanding, contradictory, living, breathing human beings. Rather than seeing consumers through the lens of focus group reports and bar charts, communities allow companies to observe consumers speaking to one another in a very natural way about their wants and needs, and about what’s on their collective radar.
The wonderful thing about this is that it begins to break down the barriers between the company and its consumers, since both the company and the consumer become more “real” to one another through the process of ongoing discussion and the sharing of ideas and insights.
By adding a true research focus to the “next gen” web community environment, this holistic perspective deepens as the community becomes a way to:
- Map the psyche of consumer segments
- Conduct virtual ethnography
- Brainstorm new ideas
- Co-create and test new products
- Observe natural consumer behavior
- Rally the company around a customer-centric perspective
But, beyond that, communities are providing even greater value when the insights gained can be quickly shifted from the “community space” to the “traditional market research space.” This tight integration with more “mainstream” research approaches ensures that the community is both feeding new research initiatives, and is being fueled by insights gained from traditional research projects.
Additionally, beyond the sharing of insights between the two spaces, we also see the emergence of the sharing of methods between the two spaces. While a community shouldn’t be considered a “silver bullet,” there’s no question that there are compelling ways of using communities for concept development, “virtual ethnography,” deep consumer psyche profiling, and the like.
The power and potential of this type of cross-pollination is exciting, since it takes another step toward a new research paradigm: one that integrates web communities and traditional research in a way that has the potential to revolutionize the way both are used in the future. This new paradigm offers the potential to:
- increase the efficiency of research by quickly finding the most appropriate forum for exploration of new insights.
- reduce costs by using the community to follow up on questions left unanswered from ad hoc research studies.
- improve the way consumer insights and implications are shared across organizational silos.
Why “Thematic Synthesis” Can Make or Break Your Web Community
Sometimes, when a prospective client looks at the massive amount of dialogue and consumer feedback gleaned from a community, it’s not uncommon for them to say, “How will I ever make sense of all of this information?”
The question is a valid one, since, without a way of accurately distilling and synthesizing this wealth of information, a community will never be able to legitimately drive decisions and organizational change. Instead, the community will remain a marketing novelty, interesting in and of itself, but ultimately detached from the teams and decision-makers that could use its rich insights to drive real change within the organization.
We have developed an approach we call Thematic Synthesis as a way to address this key unmet need. It is an extremely powerful approach because it provides a concise way of communicating and sharing the insights being generated within the community to a much wider internal audience.
Since Thematic Synthesis is longitudinal in nature, it creates a knowledge base that:
- systematically derives and communicates insights from the community.
- links these insights to the organization’s broader marketing strategy.
- identifies areas for further exploration and investigation inside—or outside—the community.
- enables the organization to more easily use community-derived insights to fuel organizational change.
Thematic Synthesis is effective because of its ability to produce tangible recommendations for future actions. It “grounds” the community in the real world of the client’s operations, providing a tangible ROI above and beyond the community’s clearly evident “soft benefits.”
It’s clear from our experience that this emerging model of “next gen” web communities is one with seemingly endless possibilities. It builds upon the inherent strength of traditional communities and transforms “next gen” communities into a fully functioning marketing research environment. In doing so, it offers the opportunity for employees deep within an organization—whose exposure to consumers might previously have been limited to reading a marketing research report—the opportunity to encounter consumers “face-to-face” and to learn from them in a very rich and meaningful way.
Beyond that, by creating an infrastructure for synthesizing insights, building a knowledge base and sharing learnings, “next gen” web communities provide companies with an innovative new way of using consumer insights to drive customer-centered decision making.
As published in Quirks.