Focus groups remain a foundational, tried-and-true form of market research. But online communities, a tool that has been around only about five years, should be considered equally as a critically valuable method.
Online communities are custom-designed, social media-style platforms — in other words, they look and operate much like Facebook and each user has a profile and profile photo. But these sites are private, secure, and contain custom titles, instructions, and specialized activity widgets. Once live, participants sign into the online community platform regularly to complete various activities, which include typing free responses, taking polls, uploading photos, videos, and collages, and engaging in discussions. The community is visibly managed by a moderator such as myself who introduces each activity, provides instructions, and follows up on responses.
These communities typically last anywhere from three days to several months. (Longer online communities are often used to test products in iterative stages of development, or, say, to test film content while editing a major motion picture.) About twenty to forty participants usually participate in each study, though there are also more scaled-up versions of online communities as large sample sizes enable quantifiable results. And participant groups can be segmented so that each segment can have different activities and can only see within its own walled garden.
Online communities are uniquely effective for product development, content development, segment validation, and early topic exploration. Certain digital features are particularly effective for ad, pilot, and campaign testing, such as a picture mark-up tool and a dial-test-like feature where participants can time-stamp content and comment on it.
With the variety of data types collected within each, online communities make it possible to custom-design research that meets wide-ranging and multi-part objectives. For instance, maybe we are looking to develop a new OTT service or improve on an existing one. We could have viewers meticulously journal all of their entertainment use for a few days, which might include screenshots of every page of each content piece they consume, along with an explanation of why they choose that platform and discovery path. As the moderator I’d follow up and dig deep into motives, experiences, and feelings – especially those around the greatest pain points in current OTT services.
For another day’s activity we might have them use a number of different OTT services for a certain duration of time — maybe one different OTT service each day — and report back on each immediately after using. What did you like about this service? What was not working so well? We could also have participants design the most critical elements of their ideal OTT platform. What issues does your service solve for you? How so? Perhaps we want help from consumers in marketing or branding the OTT service, so we can have creative activities where they have to come up with a brand, tagline, and/or vision board of the ideal OTT service branding.
Online communities also offer a bit of flexibility on the client side, too, as observers can log in and watch and flag responses on the back-end for moderators to probe. There is also a communal aspect if enabled by admins where participants can see and comment on each other’s responses.
The best part of this tool is the richness of the data output offered. I just completed a four-day online community with 36 participants that yielded 63 participant selfie videos, hundreds of files and photos uploaded by participants (a mix of their own as well as found images), and thousands of text responses. Participants also created and uploaded collages of their favorite entertainment and media content. This kind of richness offers a look into peoples’ lives that before only ethnographies could offer us. But now we don’t have to physically travel to people’s homes to get a tour of their media set-up or their kitchen pantry — now we can simply ask them to film and upload those videos on their own.
But what if they don’t want to? Well, online communities are surprisingly low in attrition rates. In most cases, at least 90% of recruits complete of all activities they are assigned. Post-community feedback indicates that participants often enjoy completing these creative exercises. And they get to do so on their own time, which they very much appreciate.
In sum, online communities are cost-effective, quick-burn methods that yield uniquely deep and colorful data, and participants gladly maintain engagement with them.