What is an online community?There is no agreed upon definition of an “online community,” but the term generally refers to a group of people with some common interest or focus who interact online. The Community Marketing and Management Council (CMMC) defines a “community” as “a group of people who have been brought together, or have brought themselves together, under a common umbrella and who are having a conversation with each other.”
Regardless of definitions, some examples of online communities could include:
- Dog lovers
- Golf enthusiasts
- Heavy users of a specific category or brand
- Stay-at-home mothers of small children
- Fashion-conscious women who buy expensive purses
- Brand advocates or brand enthusiasts
Spontaneous or naturally occurring communities are widespread across the Internet landscape. People working in R&D, marketing, brand management, etc., can tap into these existing communities by becoming members and acting as a “fly on the wall” so long as they are honest about who they are and what their motivations are. Decision Analyst follows the strict code of ethics created by Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) prohibiting companies from misrepresenting or concealing who they are in such communities. Still, if one has the time and the patience, useful information may be gleaned from participation in these existing online communities. There are thousands of communities on the Internet. Online communities range in size from as few as 20 participants up to hundreds of members or even thousands of members in the case of naturally occurring communities.
Private Online Communities
In contrast to naturally occurring communities, online communities may be created or recruited. Decision Analyst created its Imaginators? Creative Community in 2002 and has maintained and managed that community continuously since that time. These private online communities can be recruited in many different ways, ranging from invitations on websites, publicity releases, online panels, print advertising, and even direct-mail campaigns to customers or other target audiences. These private online communities can function without guidance or can be controlled by a facilitator or moderator. The private online community can be observed independently by clients, since this permission is secured during the recruiting phase of the project. Recruited or created communities tend to be small (20 to 50 members), but large ones can be created if budgets permit.
Common Uses of Private Online Communities
The information derived from such communities is generally thought of as exploratory in nature, simply another qualitative tool to gain insight into the consumer's mind and proclivities. It can be substituted at times for other qualitative techniques, such as focus groups, depth interviews, and/or ethnographic studies. The information from online communities can help companies develop new:
- Product ideas
- Service concepts
- Advertising ideas
- Promotion ideas
- Positioning concepts
- Branding strategies
- Customer experiences
- Brand names
- Packaging ideas
- Display and point-of-sale ideas
Communities can sometimes help identify problems in service, delivery, packaging, distribution levels, or display locations. Communities can often help companies better understand the perceptions and motivations of their customers. The ideas and insights that evolve from communities, like other qualitative feedback, should be submitted to traditional quantitative research and/or scientific experimentation for validation and verification.
Community Best Practices
To get the most out of online communities, Decision Analyst recommends the following best practices for private online communities:
- Establish precise goals and objectives. What do you hope to accomplish with an online community?
- Make sure that an online community is the best method to achieve your objectives. Do the members of the target group share a strong affinity or common interest that will fuel the formation of a viable online community? Would other qualitative techniques or survey methods provide the same information more quickly and more economically than communities?
- Hire professionals to help you plan, recruit, and manage the online community.
- If a recruited community (instead of naturally occurring), pay participants fairly. You will typically get better participation and better information if participants are fairly compensated. The less interesting the topic and the weaker the basis for the community, the more important it is to use incentives.
- Encourage members of the community to share and exchange photos and videos. Some of your best learning will come from these “ethnographic” sources.
- Pay a professional analyst to comb through all of the results and draw conclusions and prepare recommendations. Sure you can do it yourself, but do you really have the time? A small online community with only a month or two of data could easily require 200 to 300 hours of analyst time to study the transcripts, analyze the implications and inferences, and write the recommendations.
- Don’t conduct quantitative surveys among community members. True, it can be done, but the online community is seldom large enough, or representative enough, to make a quantitative survey worthwhile.
Experienced Qualitative Consultants
Decision Analyst has over 3 decades of qualitative research experience and is one of the pioneers in adapting qualitative research to the Internet. Our moderators can recommend the qualitative technique (online or in-person) best suited for your research needs.
If you think an Online Community might be appropriate for your brand or your company, please contact Jerry W. Thomas, President/CEO, by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Clay Dethloff, Senior Vice President, Qualitative Research, by emailing him at email@example.com). They both may be reach at 1-800-ANALYSIS (262-5974) or 1-817-640-6166.