FEATURE1 May 2011

This month we... visited an online community

Robert Bain meets the residents of Insight Research Group’s online community, eVillage.


Online communities are perhaps the most talked about new research methodology of recent years. According to Forrester, clients’ understanding of market research online communities (MROCs for short) is growing – they’re becoming clearer and more focused in their requirements. On the supplier side, more and more agencies are offering online community services alongside other methods.

We decided it was time to gatecrash an MROC ourselves and meet some of the people taking part. And not just any MROC: one populated entirely by doctors.

It’s called eVillage, and it’s a permanent community run by Cello’s healthcare specialist Insight Research Group. This is a village with no pub and no post office but 700 GPs, referred to by Insight as ‘eVillagers’.

The rise of sites like Doctors.net.uk has shown that doctors have a real appetite for social media. As a result, Esther Mustchin, a director at Insight and one of the founders of the eVillage, has seen a growing willingness among pharma clients to experiment with it in research.

Still, there was some scepticism to overcome in building an online community of GPs, Mustchin says. “We’ve heard that doctors don’t want this, and that doctors aren’t on Facebook and so on, “she told Research. “But in fact it feels very natural.”

Clients can pay to run specific projects in eVillage, or just to keep a finger on the pulse of ongoing discussions. Andrew Forman, Insight’s director of marketing and sales, said the approach struck a balance between the free-for-all of social media and the tightly regulated world of pharmaceutical marketing. “If we’d tried this three years ago it might have felt awkward for many doctors,” he said, “but now it feels appropriate for the times.”

“Some companies have been much more willing to grasp the nettle than others,” says Forman. “But there’s no pharma company in the land now that isn’t beginning to develop a social media policy.” And if you’re going to get started in social media, the ‘walled garden’ of an MROC is a good place to start.

A place to talk
Doctors participating in eVillage face no pressure to reveal more than they want to. They’re encouraged to adopt a nickname (although there’s nothing stopping them using their real name if they prefer) and to select an avatar picture so they can be easily recognised by the other eVillagers.

Concerns that the community’s appeal might be limited to young or tech-savvy doctors haven’t been realised, Mustchin says, and the nature of the setting gives discussions a very different tone to traditional interviews and groups. “It’s easier for people to give a more definitive, provocative answer than they would if it were face-to-face. We’re getting some quite uncensored thoughts and responses. People can be very unguarded.”

It’s also a method that allows for engagement with people over a much longer period than traditional methodologies would. Insight recently ran a bespoke community over six months for the London Sexual Health Programme, looking at attitudes to HIV. “You could see strong personalities coming through there, strong feelings coming through, says Mustchin. “It’s surprising the extent to which respondents get attached to the community.”

Getting to know each other
Insight’s staff took me on a quick tour of the eVillage. To kick off there’s a welcome screen with various elements designed to get people motivated and engaged. There’s an introductory video on a hot topic, a list of the latest discussions to nudge people to get involved, a summary of the points the user has earned so far, and a single-question poll for them to take part in.

The poll, says Mustchin, isn’t just a conversation starter – it’s used to gauge views on serious questions. Results of a recent poll about self-administered injections, for instance, challenged the received wisdom and triggered further research into how best to ensure patient compliance.

The main topic of discussion at the time of my visit was the government’s planned changes to the National Health Service, scrapping primary care trusts and creating consortia of GPs to commission healthcare services. Some of the eVillagers were taking part in pilots of the proposed new arrangements, and all were anxious to discuss their experiences.

The nicknames of particularly colourful characters had become quite well-known in the Insight office – there was a real sense that these were living, breathing people complete with quirks, foibles and senses of humour.

Doctors are people too
Insight let Research converse with some of the eVillagers to hear about the experience directly from them. In a short post I asked them how they were using eVillage, whether they found it enjoyable and useful, what motivated them to take part and how much time they spent on it. I introduced myself rather tentatively, apprehensive about how they might react to a journalist wading in on their chat – but they turned out to be very welcoming.

The eVillagers certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves, although many pointed out that it was early days and they would have to wait and see how useful or productive it turned out to be. But they were all keen to give it a go, as well as to offer helpful suggestions for how to improve the site. “I can assure you it’s great fun being on eVillage” said one participant.

The norm seemed to be to log on for little while a few times a week, maybe during lunch breaks or in the evening. One GP sounded a little frustrated that his day job was getting in the way of logging on more often.

In fact the only eVillager who said they were not enjoying it seemed to have misunderstood my question and was in fact talking about not enjoying their job at the moment – a recurrent theme.

“Always good to moan to peers” was a typical comment. “Being able to ‘let off steam’ online is a good idea” said one GP, while another who was involved with trials of the new NHS arrangements said it had given her a way to “share the pain”. Clearly they welcomed the opportunity to talk to others in the same boat.

The ability to influence pharma companies also came through as an important motive. “It’s good to hear we’re being listened to” said one participant. A fellow eVillager agreed: “It’s always great to believe that you are being listened to.” He also praised the moderators for pitching in to keep discussions on track, saying that “we can be pretty vague as GPs”.

Mustchin says the community has provided a valuable reality check for some clients – giving them a sense of what doctors really think about – and what they don’t. “They can get so wrapped up in their own marketing world that it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important to the doctor,” says Mustchin.

Using an online community has also changed the nature of the output materials that Insight produces, allowing them to report back to clients on a quicker, more ad hoc basis, rather than waiting months before presenting a hefty report.

The population of the village continues to grow, with eVillagers recruited through Insight’s traditional fieldwork and through referrals from other members. Other villages may soon crop up to provide a home for doctors in other countries, or with different specialisms.

Perhaps most importantly, Mustchin says, eVillage has made clients realise that “doctors are people, not robots”.