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Decoding Online Communities: A Comprehensive Guide

Learn how to use online communities for market research, and the pros and cons of engaging with specific online groups to quickly generate in-depth customer insights.

What is an online community panel or online community?

Online community panels can also be referred to as ‘online communities‘.

An online community panel is a qualitative research methodology whereby you get a group of individuals (e.g. customers, prospects, etc) to participate in discussions, surveys, and activities on an online platform. Participants are identified and chosen based on specific criteria such as common interests and demographics, and engage in moderated discussions and other activities such as surveys or specific tasks.

The online platform serves as a hub for communication, and incentives like discounts or freebies are often provided to encourage participation – although often members just value being able to have their say!

The goal is to foster long-term engagement and create a sense of community among panel members while researchers and brands gather insights, feedback, and data. 

In addition to permanent or ‘extended’ online communities, pop-up communities offer an agile solution to brands and businesses who want to gather valuable customer insights without the hassle of maintaining a long-term community. Whether they are used a day or a few months, online pop-up communities are a great way to conduct in-depth research in a quicker, more flexible way.

What are the advantages of online community panels?

Community panels have advantages for both brands and researchers. Here are some of the main benefits:

  • Precise targeting – they also provide an easy access to specific group of individuals
  • Speed – research projects can be deployed quickly, allowing for quick access to insights and findings
  • Flexibility – online community panels can be used both for qualitative research and some quick or smaller-scale quantitative projects
  • Engagement– the audience in the community panels is already engaged, making research easier and less time-consuming
  • Deep profiling of information – community panels streamline the selection for the research by excluding those who don’t meet specific criteria
  • Cost-effectiveness – any study carried out through those panels is more cost-effective (i.e. post initial setup and maintenance costs)

Members also benefit from taking part, as online community panels allow them to:

  • Contribute and feel closer to a brand that cares about them and their opinion
  • Connect with like-minded individuals with similar interests (a real ‘sense of community’!)
  • Feel special by receiving exclusive invites and accessing products and ideas before they go public

However, there are also some disadvantages to the use of online community panels:

  • The panel won’t be representative of the whole population as members will be skewed towards a specific type of individual with certain characteristics or demographics
  • It takes time and patience to build a community
  • You need to keep members engaged with frequent activities (i.e. polls, discussions) to ensure they don’t drop out, but you also need to make sure they are not overwhelmed with requests

Need something short-term?

Online community panels are worth it if you’re looking to carry out a fair amount of research over time and have time and resources to look after it and keep members engaged.

But what if you’re just looking to run a community for a one-off piece of research?

Well, then, pop-up communities are what you are looking for.

Pop-up communities are short-term ‘online forums’ used to bring together customers (or a specific audience) for an individual project. They can last for as little as one day or go on for a few weeks.

Pop-up communities tend to focus on a specific subject (e.g. shopping for clothing online) or event (e.g. live stream of a new smartphone launch to gauge reactions and first impressions) and are very flexible in how they can be set up.

They provide a focused, short-term environment for individuals to connect, engage in discussions and share opinions and experiences, allowing data and insight to be formed right in front of researchers’ eyes.

Still a bit confused about why you should run a pop-up community when you can build a long-term online community panel?

It all really depends on the specific goals, timings and nature of the research, as well as the engagement you are looking for.

A pop-up community is your best option if you’re looking to:

  • Be agile and time efficient – you can speak to a high number of people in a short period of time, and it can be quickly set up and disbanded, making it the right tool to carry out research around time-sensitive needs or events
  • Focus on a specific subject – this makes interactions more relevant and impactful
  • Build a flexible approach – set-up is easy, and live moderation makes it possible to guide and quickly react to discussions and conversations.
  • Be cost -efficient – as it is operated for a short period of time, a pop-up community tends to be more cost-efficient than maintaining an online community panel. It also requires a lot less effort as it tends to run itself once activities are set up.
  • Provide some freshness and novelty – participants may be more eager to join and contribute to your community, knowing that this will be a unique, short-term experience.

Here’s a six-step plan to build a pop-up community:

As with any other research project, there are a few things you need to establish before getting started:

  1. Define your goals: This may sound super obvious; however, it’s not uncommon for people to start without having defined clear objectives or simply wanting to achieve too many objectives within a single research project.
    Ask yourself the simple questions: are you looking to understand who would be interested in buying your product? How is your brand positioned compared to your competitors? 

    If in doubt, we have a few resources that might help – Are you looking to find out more about your audience? Or about your brand? Or perhaps your research falls into the content bucket.
  2. Identify your audience: Think about who will be able to answer the questions you have – is it your current customers? Or prospects? Or perhaps a completely different group of individuals whose needs and behaviours you are looking to understand?
  3. Determine the proper methodology: Just as much as defining your goals and identifying your audience, it’s essential to carefully assess the different methodology options that are available and find the best one for you based on your needs, timings, budget, etc.
    First of all, are you looking to carry out a quantitative or qualitative study? Or perhaps it’s a mix of the two? Online communities are good for qualitative studies, but also do offer some quantitative tools and they are a good option if you’re limited in time and budget and are happy to engage with people digitally.
  4. Choose a platform: There are a lot of specialised community websites out there, so make sure you do your research and choose a platform that aligns with your goals and needs, one that is easy for you to set up and for participants to use. Always bear in mind that the platform needs to facilitate engagement and interaction!
  5. Set a duration: It’s essential to plan beforehand how long you want the community to run – it should be long enough to achieve your goals but short enough to maintain participants’ interest. As a rule of thumb, the more you want participants to engage, the longer the community should run.
  6. Plan activities and content: This is the online community’s equivalent to a discussion guide or questionnaire. Try to mix and match different types of activities to keep participants engaged – such as discussions, polls, activities using images and videos, etc. but don’t overwhelm them with too much in one day.

And that’s it in terms of building your community – once you’ve done all of this, all you need to do is run your community. 😊

If you’ve made it till here, then you must be really interested in online pop-up communities and how to use them to develop your business strategy.

From discussing sensitive topics with an audience, observing reactions following the launch of some new tech product, making participants travel to supermarkets and take pictures of a product or display, we can confidently say there is very little you can’t do with an online community. Plus, it’s fun!

As a research partner, we are here to help with your research needs.

We can take care of all the tedious bits like setting up the community, running it and analysing the data while you sit back and reap all the benefits.

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