FEATURE1 August 2011

Community safety


Sally O’Rourke says she doesn’t work in research, but she is the European MD for Communispace. She tells us why life without a closed customer community can be ‘dangerous’.


Fear sells: fear of missing out, fear of being left behind, fear of making the wrong choice. It’s why “no one ever got fired for hiring IBM” is such a compelling argument. It offers you safety and security.

That’s what Sally O’Rourke is offering, but she wants to scare you first. As managing director for Europe at Communispace, it’s her job to convince companies that they can’t say no to having their own closed customer community. More than that; “it’s potentially dangerous for them if they don’t have it”, she says.

But there are three main issues O’Rourke says she needs to overcome when trying to sell the concept of Communispace communities to European clients. For starters, the business is not as well known over here as it is in its home market of the US, despite having had an office in London since 2007. And there’s also a question of size. Communispace reckons the ideal size of a community is 300-500 members, but many clients have already been sold on owning panels of thousands of people.

“I don’t regard myself as having moved into research. What we offer is a solution for organisations that empowers them to reach out to their customer base”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle, though, is the common assumption within businesses that they already know enough about their customer; that they already engage with them enough through surveys, social media, website feedback and customer service programmes.

“I would have told you the same thing six months ago,” O’Rourke says. “I would have told you, ‘There’s nothing you can tell me about my customers that I don’t already know.’”

New tricks
Of course, there is always something new to learn. O’Rourke uses Hallmark as an example – a greetings card retailer that was mulling a refresh of its US stores in a bid to move itself up the value chain. Hallmark has been a long-term client of Communispace and already had its own community, so when work began on trying to understand the Hallmark brand, its relationship with customers and its position against rivals, the company turned to the community for help.

The community obliged, with some members going as far as to carry out unsolicited mystery shopping trips on Hallmark stores and those of competitor firms. What emerged was that the company’s most passionate customers were at a lower point on the socio-economic scale than its refresh was targeting, so the plan was ditched. It might have brought them new customers, O’Rourke says, but the refresh risked alienating Hallmark’s loyal and frequent shoppers who respected the firm’s lack of pretensions.

Contrast that with Johnson & Johnson, which pulled a campaign for its Motrin pain relief drug and went on national TV to apologise for the tone of its ads after a gang of ‘mommy bloggers’ rounded on the firm.

“Six months ago I would have told you, ‘There’s nothing you can tell me about my customers that I don’t already know’”

The drug was being targeted at mothers who carry their children in slings and baby holsters and who, as a result, might suffer from back pain. A number of bloggers objected to what they considered to be the patronising tone of the advertising and launched a counter-campaign through videos on YouTube.

J&J was guilty of two errors in both the development of the campaign and the handling of the response, says O’Rourke: “They launched a campaign without really understanding how to talk to that consumer group and they overreacted.” The mommy blogger campaign caught plenty of attention but in all, only about 180 YouTube videos were made in opposition to the Motrin ad. Sure, each received several thousand views, but O’Rourke says Communispace’s work with its own community at the time showed no groundswell of outrage – though it agreed that the tone of the ad was off.

Now hear this
Listening to the wrong people – as J&J looks to have done – is a fairly easy mistake to make in a world where social media allows for instant one-to-one communications between brands and customers. O’Rourke says Communispace spends a lot of effort to ensure it recruits the most appropriate people for its closed communities, with a team of 25 dedicated solely to this activity. The firm has built 450 communities since launching in 1999 (and maintains three of its own – one of men, one of women and one of kids).

Communispace has 100 customers globally – not enough to form its own customer community just yet, though O’Rourke doubts whether such a thing would even be possible once the magic 300 milestone is reached. The key to a successful community is having enough “social glue” – common ground, shared tastes and complementary interests that allow discussions and debates to ignite, she says. Given the diversity of Communispace’s clients, ranging from retail to healthcare to financial services, hospitality and beyond, O’Rourke wonders whether there is enough there to truly bind them.

Yet its customers seem passionate about the business. It boasts a 90% retention rate, a figure O’Rourke says is not to be sniffed at, having worked with subscription businesses at Worth Global Style Network and John Brown Media Group. Her background is not in research, but sales and management – and, even after joining Communispace, she says: “I don’t regard myself as having moved into research. What we offer is a solution for organisations that empowers them to reach out to their customer base.”

As well as its own customers, Communispace is also starting to work with sister agencies in the Omnicom group, following its acquisition by the marketing services giant in February. Initial partners include Interbrand, the healthcare services consultancy Adelphi and research agencies Hall & Partners and Flamingo.


13 years ago

I agree with Sally’s perspective that all companies should have their own closed customer community. Many companies are sitting on large databases containing their customers (or consumers, subscribers, and employees all of which are interesting and insightful audiences) who can be empaneled and then asked for feedback on a continuous basis. This can be done at a much lower cost and can provide greater insight over time vs. trying to find and pay for those customers to participate in research on a one-off basis. However, I do not understand why she claims to not be working in research. If the purpose of having a closed customer community was not for research purposes but instead for observation or even for marketing purposes, then there are lots of ways she and her clients can participate in this endeavour without the need to invest in the set-up, recruitment, incentives, technology platform and more which are associated with building a customer community. There are a tremendous number of naturally forming communities across social media from which companies can observe and learn if the main objective is not to run research as we know it today. I also do not understand why the “ideal size of a community is 300-500 members”. Since the incremental cost of empaneling and deeply profiling thousands of customers is marginal, then certainly it is better to have a larger panel from which to sample thereby enabling it to be used for a variety of research purposes over time. If what is desired is the uninterrupted ideas exchange amongst customers, then this can certainly be supported by simply inviting those from your panel who would be appropriate to include and providing them with a specific forum within which this dialogue can occur. Importantly, we know that there are lots of different types of research that most companies would ideally like to run on their customer panel and these are far better supported when the panel is larger. If the concern is keeping them sufficiently active, then clients can run an omnibus every month or two with questions that they would otherwise answer on “gut” or have the option with some suppliers to open their panel to other researchers and participate in a revenue share as researchers pay to access their panel for their own research purposes. Finally, while there might be examples where in hindsight listening to what is easily observed across social media could be misleading, I think there needs to be a similar cautionary note applied to solely listening to a group of 400-500 customers who have been recruited and have agreed to participate in a company sponsored and managed closed community.

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13 years ago

The fact is customers have changed. They want a relationship with the brands they buy and work with. Scare companies about this or not, marketing is changing. Get on board, or your customers will leave you behind.

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13 years ago

I found this article very interesting because it brings to light some of the misconceptions about online communities I sometimes encounter when talking to clients. I do agree that Of course, listening to the right people at the right time is crucial to making effective marketing and business decisions. That’s why it’s so important to get communities right. However, I disagree with some of the thinking in this article. When working to set up an online research community: • never make any decision, much less to set up a community, out of fear. That’s a sure path to failure. Rather, to get the kind of ROI to justify the effort you must set clear, measurable objectives. • Don’t use a cookie cutter approach. It rarely works and especially with today’s robust technology, they are totally unnecessary. The industry is moving toward the approach of having a community as a subset of an online market research panel. This gives you the flexibility to execute both quantitative and qualitative research using the same technology platform. You can invite panelists into a discussion whenever it’s appropriate and you can field surveys quickly when that’s called for. The danger to the cookie cutter 300-500 person community model is that you’ll try to shoehorn all your business objectives into this solution. Reminds me of the adage that when all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. • Communities are first and foremost a research tool and this is a research business. Setting up a community without an understanding of proper research methodology and practices is like doing a surgical procedure without any medical training. Nobody involved is going to be happy with the result. I’m delighted to say I have rarely (maybe never) in my 20-year career in market research, meeting with scores of the top global brands, run across researchers or marketers who feel they know enough about their customers. My experience has been the opposite; they are constantly seeking ways to a more in-depth and comprehensive understanding of their customer base and the manner in which it changes over time.

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