Communities could create an "insight super highway" - Mike Hall
Last week Tuned In announced it had landed Hall & Partners founder Mike Hall as a member of its non-executive team. His remit is to offer guidance to the agency on its research services and business strategy, as it continues to expand within the field of online communities. In his first speech since joining the agency, he explored how this type of research will affect the industry.
Mike Hall has backed a predicted shift of research spend to community-based models in the next five years, but said there was still much to be done to convince clients that the medium has potential to get real business intelligence on their behalf.
Speaking for the first time as a non-executive member of the Tuned In team, he said that despite being almost five years old now, “communities are still in their infancy and though they are the subject of many discussions, there is also a lot of doubt.”
It’s difficult for some clients to appreciate the role they can play and identify where they can fit into their business
At a breakfast session organised by the agency, Hall - founder of Omnicom’s Hall & Partners - said that the concerns were largely driven by fears that communities were unrepresentative and had no real business purpose behind them.
“It’s difficult for some clients to appreciate the role they can play and identify where they can fit into their business. It’s only when confusion like this is cleared up, that communities can really go mainstream,” he said.
Part of the way to resolve such dilemmas is to have a reliable definition of what a community is. Offering his own suggestion for this, he said: “It is essentially a medium, rather than a product. It can’t be delivered without input and is different to the traditional qual or quant research fieldwork medium because it offers real-time perspectives to actual business needs.”
Hall said that fears over communities are no different to the early days of telephone research in the 70s or online research at the start of this century, and clients just need to keep being nudged to experiment and learn from these tests.
“You always approach new concepts with a touch of caution. Over time, things change and you can prove their worth. It’s always a slow chain, but the process is built around convincing people of the merits of such solutions. It’s not just talking about greater participation, but showing how you an segment that participation into the right demographics for a brand and how representative that is of the sample user base you want to be talking to.”
Eliminating fear and steering businesses
On his own perspective on what the value of communities could be, he said that they were capable of offering insights across businesses in ways not currently seen. “There is the potential for the blurring of clear boundaries between research and other areas of the business, because communities can be used wisely by the insights team and other teams. The key is to demonstrate the applicability of this across the board. Clients are testing the waters and sharing experiences, so more will take the plunge and safely swim in larger numbers over time.”
He cited Esomar estimates for communities growth in the next five years to rise from approximately 3% of research turnover to around 20%, describing it as “a substantial increase” and called for existing client users to “act as its vanguard and make it an actual insights tool, not one that can get lost because it is misunderstood.”
He added that in order to do this the industry “must be better at giving clients insights into why they should choose to use a community. There is no place for agencies wanting to just be qual or quant and applying that same logic to how they present communities to a client. There can be no doubt that clients want intelligence to base business decisions on across their company.”
Hall claimed that the time is right for the research industry to back communities and not treat them separately under the term MROCs (market research online communities). He said that with many technology-based software companies “leaving the research space because it isn’t proving valuable for them”, the time was right for agencies to engage clients and explore the potential of the business in more fruitful ways.
Eventually, we could be on an insight super highway, a model where insight takes centre stage and has board level representation
“What I anticipate happening now is a better education process coming from agencies where the focus is on demonstrating context to an otherwise fairly technical resource for concept generating. There will be a change in the demands around communities. Clients will demand innovation, breadth and depth of ideas and better community management. Such understanding needs to be presented to clients in transparent ways that help to ease doubts they may have - allowing for models such as Tuned In’s heartbeat approach, putting community at the heart of a business and reflecting the important shift in how communities should work,” Hall said.
In an attempt to inspire the research community to action, he ended his talk with a prediction for agencies to muse on. “I have no doubt that insight will be the lifeblood of business in the near future and generating that in real time will be a constant need. This is what communities are built for and by better client-agency relationships, we can help to kickstart a mindset change from being customer-centric to insight-centric.
“Eventually, we could be on an insight super highway, a model where insight takes centre stage and has board level representation - the model behind all business planning processes. We won’t have a chief customer officer, but a chief insight officer - and this should occur globally. Communities must find a way of meeting these business needs appropriately and offer clients this unique iterative opportunity for better business intelligence.”