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Friday, 27 November 2015

Between an MROC and a hard place

From: Reporter's Notebook

Flicking through Forrester’s latest report on online communities yesterday, it occurred to me that the term ‘market research online community’ (or MROC) has gained some traction in this nascent area.

I still haven’t figured out if I’m supposed to be saying ‘em ar oh see’ or ‘emroc’, or if there’s some transatlantic divide, like with tomato and tomato. But Forrester has warmly embraced the term, billing its report as the ‘Q3 2009 Global MROC Survey’.

One man who won’t be pleased is Mike Hall of online community firm Verve. When I met him a few weeks back he was telling me all about how brand communities work, and kept hammering home the point that they are in the control of their members, not their sponsors. I asked him what he thought of the term ‘market research online community’.

“It’s complete rubbish,” he said. “It’s part of the confusion that’s going on. They are not research communities. You can have a community and only use it for research, that still doesn’t make it a research community. It’s an online brand community which you’ve chosen to use for research.”

Hall makes an important point – people don’t join communities to take part in research, they join communities to pursue a relationship with the brand and with others who wish to do the same thing. Surely that’s what defines what the community is ‘for’?

But others say it isn’t so simple. FreshMinds has recently restructured its communities business to draw an even clearer distinction between online communities used for research, and those used for marketing and other purposes. Sister firm FreshNetworks is carrying on running the non-research communities, while the research ones are moving to become part of FreshMinds’ online division. The change was partly influenced by the MRS’s new rules on the use of client incentives, which affect how research can be conducted in branded environments.

When I put Hall’s argument about MROCs to James Turner of FreshMinds, he replied that he was taking his cues from clients – who generally want to use a community for one thing or another. Anyway, he said, the kinds of clients interested in using communities for research are generally quite different from those interested in using them for brand building or marketing.

So, while there might be no such thing as an MROC in principle, in practice it’s a handy term.

Forrester’s MROC report illustrated just how young this area is – we could have run a headline yesterday saying that one third of companies are using or considering using MROCs in the next 12 months – but we could equally have run one saying that a third of companies don’t even know what they are.

As the market matures and takes shape, the words we use to describe it are bound to shift and change. We’ll be balancing a healthy suspicion of jargon and faddy language with an awareness that having a widely accepted name for something saves everyone a lot of hassle and confusion.

Research is an industry awash with irritating buzzwords, and they live or die not just by their precision or usefulness, but by the vagaries of fashion. ‘Web 2.0’ has, thankfully, pretty much petered out, while the more descriptive ‘social media’ seems to be putting down roots. Maybe in a few years time we won’t hear people talking about MROCs anymore, just as you don’t hear people today talking about surfing the information superhighway or listening to the wireless.

UPDATE 13/10/09: We had Mike’s surname wrong when this was first posted - Page not Hall. Mike Page is someone else entirely. Apologies to all for that. I’ve corrected it (and the comments also) to show the correct name — RB

Readers' comments (14)

  • Robert - very interesting post. I agree that useless buzzwords should die a quick death, but I wouldn't be too quick to judge "MROCs."

    Until recently, all "online communities" were grouped under one umbrella, whether the intention was market research, marketing, or customer loyalty. The term MROC helps distinguish true research communities from others where research is an afterthought.

    I too think Hall's point oversimplifies the situation. Whether a community is branded or not is not the most important question. A true research community may have core features that are truly relevant for research, but more importantly, the community includes active facilitation and activities designed to elicit insights on the issues that clients want to explore. It is designed to deliver research value. If you wanted to explore the needs/lifestyle of avid pet owners, you could do it in a "Pet Parents" community or a "PETCO Parents Community."

    People can and do join communities to participate in research and connect with others that may have a similar shared passion. To me, just calling it a branded community may contribute to the confusion, since people may assume it can be used for marketing or other non-research related objectives. At least MR clarifies the purpose, which is helpful give all the OCs out there...


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  • First, know that Branded Communities is a registered trademark of ours, distinguishing our operations from the rest since 1998. Since that time, our prototype has been running profitably and building brand usage on a turnkey basis via

    Until other companies can build brand usage, revenue and loyalty from their users via an online entity such as, they are not true Branded Communities.

    Rob Frankel

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  • Tom Ewing

    I'm broadly sympathetic to Hall's apparent principle that the function of a specific community is determined by its members. But in that case why is "branded" any more of a fixity than "research" - if a brand can impose its presence from the top, why couldn't a purpose also be imposed?

    (Obviously, commercially I can see why it's a good idea to retain the notion, but it seems inconsistent to me!)

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  • Brad Bortner, principal analyst with Forrester, coined the term MROC. He defines "Market Research Online Communities" as “Captive interactive groups of people joined together for a common interest, systematically harvested for qualitative market research purposes.”

    I believe people do join communities to participate in research: customers join the product advisory councils of strategic vendors, and consumers join the MROCs of brands they love. Other communities are stealth MROCs -- imagine a community positioned as a place to discuss travel concerns, for instance, but developed solely to be mined for research by hotels, airlines and car rental companies.

    As for how its pronounced, I say /em-rock/.

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  • Robert Bain

    Thanks for that Jeffrey – I didn't realise it was Brad that coined MROC.

    Mike Hall did also make the important point that research represents the 'fusion element' in any branded community – the one business discipline that is central to the use of the community for any purpose, be it marketing, brand building, feedback, whatever. But that still doesn't make it a research community, apparently.

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  • Simply put, it would be helpful to make a clear distinction between custom panels and communities. I have tried to do so, see to read more. Whenever I have discussed this with market researchers on the client side (practically daily), they are in complete agreement and believe strongly that custom panels need to be the starting point before a research community is even considered. It is also unclear what specific insights and actions have been taken which were derived from observing and facilitating a community. Our belief at EasyInsites is that a custom panel enables clients to run their structured and focused research agenda in a faster, continuous and much more cost effective manner.

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  • Catchy title, tho in the interests of accuracy I'd like to suggest that an onlne brand community is not really a hard place to go - as long as you understand the principles of how they work.

    A few observations in response to some interesting points made:
    1) the term we use is 'brand communities' not 'branded communities' (which I agree would add to the confusion). This is because communities form or are formed around brands...
    2)... and not around research. Taking cues from clients is one thing, principles quite another - most of our clients currently only use their community for research too, but all of them are interested in further applications. As soon as they do, it's not an MROC, so using the wrong term now is not going to help them get best business value.
    3) The Brad Bortner quote illuminates this point perfectly in that his definition of an MROC restricts them to qualitative research. "Complete rubbish" may be a little harsh, but not unfair - let's agree we've outgrown such arbitrary restrictions already and that principles should hold sway.
    4) The custom panels distinction is worth making but Charles Pearson draws an incomplete and inaccurate conclusion. Custom panels are indeed the start point - or, more accurately, were, since most clients are way beyond the starting line now. And we'd agree that progress should be evolutionary, not abandoning existing practice wholesale just yet., Denial is, however, not a good stance to take in matters of evolution. It's a common misunderstanding to think that communities stimulate conversations instead of responses to surveys (or ad campaigns, sales initiatives, new product development or whtever you're using your community for). Wrong. They provide this in addition to responses to company stimulus such as surveys and launches. The fact that community members can talk to each other and (essentially) members of the company about subjects of their choosing is one of the key differences between a panel and a community. The other is that a panel is just an ad hoc tool, whereas a community is a new medium. It happens to be quicker cheaper and more permanent than any panel for research purposes so I'd take a diametrically opposite view on those points compared to Charles Pearson.

    I'll be blogging from the IIR conference in Vegas next week where I'm presenting my latest (and shortest, praise be!) version of my paper 'How online brand communities work', and look forward to a continuing and sparky debate!

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  • One brief comment in response to Mike Hall's remarks. Respectfully, I am not sure which end clients you are interacting with but in my experience meeting with dozens of clients across many sectors just in the past 6 months, the large majority do not have their own custom panels. While you might be right about their being a growing interest and need sometime in the future for communities, the reality of clients today is quite different than what you describe. Also, regarding your claim that a community is "quick and cheaper", I am not sure how you make that claim when it clearly involves budget, commitment and buy-in not only on the part of market research but also on the part of marketing, product development, pr and more on the client side and also includes far more on-going functionality than a custom panel website requires. I would be happy to provide costs to any client who is interested in making that comparison. Feel free to contact me at:

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  • The one thing that I simply can´t get regarding research communities is the even more simple question: considering all the brand communities and general soc net´s that are already out there, being used every day by millions, who would need to invest into a research purpose community??

    Why don´t the firms selling this kind of software instead learn to piggy-back on existing community and soc net software, enabling their clients to easily plug into the research tools needed? By so doing, they would also present the users of that community with a much needed clarity and transparency that they are actually being eavesdropped on.

    Why on earth would I as a brand owner, want to invest in a gated research community platform, instead of using any of the cheap, easy-to-implement, first-with-the-last, existing community software, or if my brand is smaller, tap into large existing soc net´s and gain my insights from there?

    Let´s think about this. P&G runs the detergent brand Tide. Does it make sense for them to run a community for Tide? Sounds to me that Tide is a typical non-community client (who, in his or her best senses, would like to participate? The person that chooses to participate, why would you ever want to interact with that person – he or she must almost by definition be an outlier).

    Apple runs the brand Iphone. Does it make sense for them to run a community. Definitely. Should it be a research community. No, of course not, because people don´t go there in order to get their brains picked, they go there to show that this is a crowd that they want to belong to. Does it make sense to do research on this community? Yes, of course it does, but it has to be done in a fashion that is completely in the open. I wouldn´t want my comment on an Iphone to pop up in their next ad campaign (that is, if I don´t get paid for it....). This community solution still doesn´t fix the problem that Apple might have - they are still just going to talk to people that are already convinced users of Iphone, whereas it might be more interesting for them to talk to people that are like the majority – most people care less over a stretch of time whether they are using ATC Hero with Android or Iphones (they are pretty much the same thing, including the app store), and partly because of this, probably won´t join up on any community for mobile phones. But, and that is the point, they are very interesting to talk to since they constitute a much larger buying power than the existing pool of customers.

    And what about all the other brands? What seems to me to make sense is to create community research plug-ins for use on the existing communities, such as FB. So, why aren´t research community software makers doing this? Because they believe that in the short run there is more money in the “market of fools”, i e brands that think they need this in order to stay competitive, and the sad truth, probably, is that the software makers might be right.

    That doesn´t take away the need for panels, though. They are used for the internal and external quantative part of research, and/or qual where it makes sense (if it for whatever reason isn´t possible to eavesdrop on community members). Communities should build panels, and panels should be complemented with a community solution if the brand is interesting enough, and the rest they should use a tool to tap into existing “real” communities such as FB.

    So, panels are purpose-specific, as are communities or soc net´s and serve a real need, where as research-based communities.....I have a hard time understanding what need they might serve. Community software for interesting brands, yes, plug-in tools for research in the open on those communities, yes. Smaller brands – go to FB and get your understanding of your brand there, instead of investing silly amounts into creating something that will only enable you to tap into the few percent of your consumers that are extreme fans (I don´t mean to be rude to extreme followers of a particular brand, they may behave as they like, but as a brand owner it makes more sense if I could tap into both the common user as well as the extreme fan from the same one point-of-access).

    So – research community building is a market that seems to be run on the brands´ fear of being left behind – the funny thing though, is that being left behind might be a very good place to be. Imagine a world where every brand in the world tries to attract everyone to become part of their research based brand God, it won´t take long until we all have learned not to sign up anywhere (and those that are still on-board, might very well be the ones that you see no value in interacting with).

    The questions remains - why is it better to create communities around research, instead of creating research around communities? I thought we left product orientated solultions years ago. Focus on the human instead, and present him/her with things that make him/her happy. Learn from Facebook.

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  • @Bo Mattson

    I think you're confused about the way that online research communities are set up, compared with 'natural' communities or brand communities. Most research communities actively recruit and screen participants (as they do for conventional quant and qual), in order to find certain types of user. A research community participant may not be someone who would ever fall over the same brand's general community.

    There's a whole other conversation to be had about 'talkability' of different brands, but simply listening to the talk on general social networks such as Facebook may not get you very far.

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  • Robert Bain

    Mike - in the light of your comment I listened back to my slightly fuzzy recording of our chat, and I see I misquoted you above as saying 'branded communities' instead of 'brand communities' – a distinction that I wasn't so sensitive to at the time! Sorry – amended now.

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  • There's clearly a hot-bed of discussion around online communities to be had here, as well as some myths to be dispelled. I'd like to touch on one or two of the salient points raised.

    Online communities, be they sponsored by a brand, derived for the purpose of research, hosted on Facebook or Ning, or anything else, are brought together by a shared interest or common passion among its membership. Consumers have passion for brands, but they are also passionate about sharing their brand experiences be they good or bad (both of which are of course equally valuable to a brand). The success of any online community depends upon how well these passions are understood and harnessed, and how the consumers self-interests are taken up.

    What's also evident is that online communities present a new paradigm - not research, not advertising nor communication, but a more sophisticated way to listen, learn, connect and collaborate with consumers. For this reason, we believe that research communities (communities created solely for the purpose of research) are only harnessing a small fraction of the real potential an online community. This potential is the ability to go beyond the one-way street of research to nurture more dynamic 'relationships' with real people (not respondents), that allow them to have a say in the future of that brand (ie co-create).

    MROC exists as a label because traditional research businesses needed one. However, most MR companies struggle to make the business proposition of building, running and optimising online communities work since their business models don't allow it.

    Online communities must also be distinguished from online focus groups where respondents are specifically paid to take part in discussions and conduct tasks. Online communities reward people emotionally and socially for their participation, thus going beyond traditional research methodologies.

    While I respect that this is an MR-sponsored discussion, its time the industry woke up to the reality of this new paradigm - the combination of relationship management, real-time feedback and qualitative and quantitative research. It is the passions of the people that are important, and how brands can harness these, not the data.

    Finally, on the technicalities of managing communities on bespok platforms, as opposed to Ning or Facebook, Bo must appreciate that a more powerful management system is required to generate reports and disseminate the 'conversations' to other stakeholders. Neither Facebook or Ning have the capacity to run bespoke marketing and/or research reports in the same as our own platform, and indeed those of our peers. However, I would advocate the Nings and Facebooks of this world as a good starting point for determining the passions I spoke of earlier.

    Stephen Cribbett

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  • First, in the interests of full disclosure, I'm one of the founders of Communispace. We've recruited and run over 350 private, insight-generating online communities in the past ten years, and have developed a point of view on some of these questions that is highly informed by this body of experience. So let me begin by agreeing with Ben that it's dangerous to lump all "online communities" into a single bucket. Online venues like VocalPoint or Kraft First Taste, while containing some "community" features such as discussion boards and quick polls, were created primarily to push product promotions and drive word of mouth. That's a perfectly valid purpose, but it's important to recognize that whatever insight they derive from the on-site conversations is incidental. That being said, I also agree with Stephen that "market research" may be too narrow a description of purpose, that "online communities present a new paradigm - not research, not advertising nor communication, but a more sophisticated way to listen, learn, connect and collaborate with consumers."

    In short, in our experience, private communities provide an ongoing means of hardwiring the voice of the current or prospective customer, the brand fan, detractor, and/or brand indifferent, into the business. And this intentionality in member composition -- the fact that these communities are quite mindfully recruited and facilitated with the goal of understanding specific populations -- is what differentiates them from the more organic online communities and social networks that Bo's referring to. We run communities of core target market constituents for some clients (e.g. time-starved moms for Kraft), but also run communities of non-clients, or emerging markets who are potential clients 20 years down the road (e.g. a millenials community for Charles Schwab). So to Bo's excellent question -- "Why is it better to create communities around research, instead of creating research around communities?" -- I'd respond that this is not an either/or choice. Certainly there is learning to be derived from going to where your passionate consumers are, i.e. to earn the right to listen and enter into conversations in communities of brand fans or detractors. But for companies to get to know and collaborate with the less-engaged but equally important consumer, they must commit to recruiting them, engaging with them in a transparent, respectful, and reciprocal manner. And for these companies to actively co-create with customers, to generate and share new product ideas very early in the NPD lifecycle, they need an intimate, safe, trusting, relationship-based context in which to do it. That's what private MROCs provide.

    So while I also agree with Charles that there is a clear distinction between custom panels and communities, I don't agree that "custom panels need to be the starting point before a research community is even considered." In panels, the one-off research project is the center of gravity. The researcher poses a question to a subset of panelists-- today about headache remedies, tomorrow about cars – and the panelists have no ongoing relationship to one another or to the multitude of different brands sponsoring a project. Panelists’ comments are reactive (as opposed to generative), and visible only to the project sponsor. While the member composition in a custom panel may be more targeted and specific, their opportunities to develop relationships with one another and/or to generate their own discussions are limited by technology and/or by the typically short-term, discontinuous nature of what is still a project-driven approach to research. This isn't to say that there isn't a role for quantitative research projects, but I think their primary value is in testing and validation, i.e. in mitigating risk by getting feedback on what the brand already pretty much knows. In contrast, long-term, highly engaged brand communities in which the members and brand feel an equal sense of ownership, are capable of generating breakthrough insights that are potentially transformative (as well as performing the equally valuable function of killing bad ideas early).

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  • I am curious about the comment that Stephen Cribbett makes above that "most MR companies struggle to make the business proposition of building, running and optimising online communities work since their business models don't allow it."

    I run a market research consultancy in Spain and I am evaluating the potential for "building, running and optimising online communities" for our customers as an added value service (and hopefully profitable for us). Obviously I am also interested in the potential for MROCs (or however we want to refer to them) to open doors to new clients.

    Am I in for a struggle?

    Thanks, Brian (

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