OPINION30 October 2009

A refreshing lack of consensus on online communities


There was much talk of online communities at Esomar’s Online Research Conference this week – but not much agreement on what they are, what they’re for, or how best to use them. Good, says Vovici founder Jeffrey Henning.

This week’s Esomar Online Research Conference revealed a refreshing lack of consensus about what constitutes ‘community research’, with the case studies of community innovation proving dramatically different from one other. This is a sign of healthy experimentation as methodologies are explored and tested.

Volker Bilgram of German innovation researcher HYVE discussed Swarovski’s branded open community for co-creation, where over 2,000 participants uploaded design ideas for wristwatches or used a web application to configure their own designs. For a different take on co-creation, Darren Lewis and Koen van der Wal of MetrixLab discussed an independent closed community of 150 participants, who were shepherded through a multi-week process of ideation about what the kitchen might look like in 2020. Interaction was limited, with the goal being to encourage innovation without concerns about social acceptability.

James Kennedy from BrainJuicer went in a different direction, describing the JuicyBrains multi-client MROC, an independent closed community with more than 10,000 members. It is used to run projects to research business problems, consumer habits and brand associations, using test diaries, ideation, concept improvement and other tools.

When it comes to branded communities, on the other hand, the two social network vendors who presented, Daniel Shapero of LinkedIn and Sean Bruich of Facebook, think that proprietary research communities are an expensive interim solution. As Shapero said, “It’s expensive, hard to do, time consuming, but it returns a great set of data. I’m guessing over time social media will provide platforms so that clients can do that there.” Bruich pointed out that “Coca Cola already has four million fans on Facebook. A lot of infrastructure can be leveraged.”

Similarly, Dan Coates of Globalpark discussed the rise of advocacy communities: branded open communities built not so much for research purposes but instead to turbocharge marketing efforts. For General Mills, identified 80,000 influential advocates of its brand, and targeted them for recruitment to a community, which was then extensively marketed to in order to create pre-launch buzz and awareness of Progresso Chicken Broth. The result was one of the most successful product launches in General Mills history.

Whichever type of community you build, you want it to be engaging. The news on this front was mixed. Ray Poynter of The Future Place presented a report card on community engagement thus far, based on 1,082 Australian panel interviews. Comparing online communities to online surveys, fewer people felt they could be honest in  communities. Comparing them to focus groups, participants enjoyed communities less, were less able to get their views across and were less likely to feel the return was worth the effort. Poynter summed up the community report card by saying: “Good start but must do better!” Tom Ewing of Kantar Operations, meanwhile, warned that research data collection had been “outflanked by the internet” and that researchers had become “tics on the body of the information hippo”.

Anthony Hamelle of Linkfluence argued that ‘web 2.0’ engagement was really a case of rolling back to a previous state: the sense of belonging and interdependence which was the natural state of people before the 20th century. In his view, web 2.0 is a re-empowerment of communities and individuals within communities. To discuss engaging respondents is to miss the point, as they are not respondents, interviewees or participants but co-researchers.

Joel Rubinson of the ARF emphasised that engagement is vital to improve panel quality. You can’t buy engagement, and financial incentives produce lower quality responses. The most engaged respondents are those who are eager to share their authentic opinion.

In fact, Kees de Jong of SSI argued that quality is now being addressed through so many initiatives that the focus of the industry would now shift from quality to respondent experience. He boldly predicted that the ‘Online Research’ conference (known before this year as the ‘Online Panel’ conference) might in future make way for an ‘Experience’ conference. However Esomar chooses to rename it in the future, it certainly succeeded in engaging its community of researchers.

Jeffrey Henning is founder of Vovici and blogs at blog.vovici.com, where he has been providing unfeasibly thorough coverage of proceedings at the conference.