How Moderators can Steward a Truly Mutual Community Experience


By Greg Heist, Chief Innovation Officer, and Curtis Kaisner, Director, Qualitative, Gongos, Inc.

The rise of the experience economy has profoundly impacted brands across categories. Indeed, designing a great customer experience translates into a powerful competitive advantage but it also has implications far beyond the retail, entertainment and luxury spaces.

In fact, the increasing emphasis on designing great experiences for customers is raising the bar for the insights industry. While the traditional model of a research moderator having one-off conversations with individuals will still exist, it’s important to look at broader opportunities to transcend this transactional model of interaction and embrace a new vision of qualitative research that is ongoing, reciprocal and anchored in a mutual value exchange between companies and customers.

This new vision, which elevates customers to business stakeholders, comprises a wide variety of strategies to drive organizational transformation. However, at the core, it is the experience customers have with corporations through ongoing interactions in online communities that can form the foundation.

In fact, according to research conducted by Gongos on this subject, 80% of U.S. consumers (66% globally) believe that providing their input via a private online community can make a difference in the success of the business. However, only 46% of global consumers who participate in online research communities currently agree that being a member makes them feel like a stakeholder in the business.

In light of this, let’s take a look at some of the challenges that exist within the conventional community experience and identify ways that moderators (including anyone who has regular interaction with community participants) can transition from managing a platform to stewarding a more valuable and insightful community experience – one that moves customers from research subjects to respected stakeholders in the success of the corporation.

Less than optimal

There are three areas of the current member experience that stand out as being less than optimal: conversation is driven by activities rather than organic discussion; information-sharing is a one-way street, from participant to client; and monetary incentives drive a transactional value exchange.

Let’s take each one in turn and explore ways moderators can go beyond participation rates and executional efficiency to forge relationships of reciprocity that reap greater ROI.

Conversation is driven by activities rather than organic discussion. Currently, the conversation in communities is strongly driven by the cadence of activities posted by the moderator on behalf of the client. While these kinds of activities are important ways of shaping the discussion, their volume and velocity can dominate the overall chatter. Too often, community moderators possess a “set it and forget it” mentality. They post the activity and wait for the responses before dutifully analyzing the responses and providing the client with a summary of findings.

While this approach provides insightful answers to the questions asked of participants, it also drowns out the potentially valuable organic conversations they engage in. A steward of the community will be deeply invested in fostering vibrant, spontaneous discussion, responding to unprompted posts and encouraging deeper, broader dialogue about them with other participants. Going forward, this kind of natural interaction should be seen as a key success factor for the community.

Information sharing is a one-way street, from participant to client. Communities have been called focus groups in slow motion and this dynamic certainly applies to the information flow between the two key parties: the participants and the client, with the agency as intermediary. This phenomenon is a vestige of the desire for research to remain untainted by anything other than the participant’s opinions and experiences.

While there is merit to this belief, it also creates an imbalanced relationship between the community members and client. From a participant perspective, their opinions disappear into a black hole, frequently with no indication of whether they inspired any kind of “win” within the client organization. This doesn’t foster the kind of transparency and open communication that are hallmarks of healthy human relationships.

Being a steward of the community calls for advocating clients to disclose – within the bounds of keeping appropriate confidentiality – more about how the community is shaping the thinking of their organization. Doing so is a powerful way to encourage a virtuous cycle of sharing and feedback, with the ultimate benefit of deeper and more valuable insights emerging from the community.

Monetary incentives drive a transactional value exchange. As a result of the two dynamics mentioned above, many communities’ value proposition is largely anchored in the promise of a financial incentive in exchange for dutiful response to sponsored activities. This creates a highly transactional culture where participants’ primary loyalty is to their incentive check.

Becoming a community steward requires practitioners to create a much more meaningful value proposition for participants. While the threads of this proposition will be woven in a way that is unique to each community, it needs to include the opportunity for consumers to go behind the “velvet rope” – to become an outside-insider and feel invested in the success of the client’s business. This could include exclusive conversations with client experts, feedback on the ways the community is shaping a new product offering or even exposure to how the client makes decisions and thinks about the future of their brand.

Show up differently

Gongos’ research shows that 93% of global consumers would be willing to join an online research community but gleaning the most valuable insights requires moderators to show up differently. How does this journey begin? It starts by taking legendary management consultant Peter Drucker’s words to heart: “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” Think about ways to transform the community experience into one that creates a whole new dimension of value to organizations. This new vision of the community experience treats participants with a heightened respect, coupled with greater transparency and mutuality. It ushers in the opportunity for participants to be seen and treated as vital stakeholders in the future success of the organization.

As published in Quirk’s.