OPINION29 October 2009

Researchers in Chicago ponder the future of MROCs

News Opinion

Research communities were a hot topic at this week’s Esomar online conference, but questions remain over what the future holds for them, with agencies espousing various approaches, and networking giants Facebook and LinkedIn giving little away about their plans.

The conference continued yesterday afternoon with a roundtable hosted by Tom Anderson of Anderson Analytics. In social media terms, Anderson is the best-connected researcher in the business, and he got Facebook’s Sean Bruich and LinkedIn’s Daniel Shapero along to explain exactly where research fits into their new world.

This was a fascinating panel. After all, Facebook and LinkedIn potentially have access to consumer and business information that any researcher would give their eye teeth for, and the scale and speed they operate on is astonishing: at Facebook, Bruich half-joked, “long term is two weeks”. At times there was definitely tension in the air, but the speakers were keen to stress the possibilities of social networks for researchers and research buyers.

The first major benefit, they said, was authenticity. On a social network, pretending to be who you’re not is a losing strategy – you will soon be found out. So as a way of drawing sample, social networks are the best way for finding participants who are who they say they are. But that’s only part of the bigger story – sampling, the panel claimed, was very much today’s technology: future participation and information will be built around the “social graph”, the network of individual connections each person on a social network has.

As for MROCs (market research online communities), Shapero praised their usefulness while slyly emphasising their cost. Over time, he said, it was likely that LinkedIn and Facebook would open themselves up as platforms for brands and companies to build ‘lite’ communities. For now, though, both men were very cagey about the extent to which they’d let research into the platforms. No chance of an ‘opt-in to research’ option for new Facebook users, for instance. The user, Bruich noted, was top of the hierarchy at Facebook, and from that perspective research was far lower on the list of priorities than privacy. It was a valuable insight into the perspective of companies who are likely to play a bigger and bigger role in research considerations next decade.

MROCs have been a theme across both days of the conference. The principles of community research seem well-established – what’s at stake now isn’t the validity of the technique, but whose approach works best. On Tuesday, James Kennedy of BrainJuicer framed online communities as an innovation need, arguing that with more and more industries driven by fashion and more innovation externally sourced, they are the right method for the times. BrainJuicer’s approach is the open MROC – a “multi-client, non-branded community” whose members could be tapped for innovation projects. Sound like a panel to you? Maybe, though Kennedy’s case study, a fascinating look at innovation in the sphere of respiratory healthcare, suggested that whatever it was called, the technique could produce results in a sensitive and hard-to-research area.

Manila Austin from Communispace then gave a presentation on engagement in multinational communities, using text and sentiment analysis to look at hundreds of participants in Communispace projects and working out which were more likely to express which emotion. The approach constrasted written content with the use of emoticons as emotional pointers by community members. Ultimately the results were mixed, the emoticons often pointing in a different direction from the written content. But this in itself is interesting, suggesting that the best course for the multinational community provider is to offer as many options as possible.

Yesterday, Ray Poynter from The Future Place lit a fire under one of community research’s most cherished tenets: that community-based research is more fun for the participant. When asked if they “always enjoyed” the community experience, only 34% of respondents agreed: no different from the 37% who claim to enjoy online surveys. Communities certainly weren’t the worst-performing option on any of the scales Poynter assessed, but the results of this survey suggested that, for Australians at least, they weren’t a magic engagement bullet. Poynter, an enormously entertaining presenter as usual, ended by reaffirming his belief in communities, but said they had to strive to be “as enjoyable as a focus group, as convenient as an online survey, and as fulfilling as research with a real interviewer”.

1 Comment

14 years ago

Tom, Thanks for the great post. Good to hear the buzz for those of us unable to make it to the conference. I think "innovation" is a single use-case of online communities and in late 2010 (possibly after a social media soulsearch / backlash) we'll see most firms move towards more specific well-identified use cases with clearer ROIs. At the same time, those who do achieve success in communities will be pushing for a broader benefit. So a market moving in two directions. We'll have to wait and see. Charlie FreshNetworks

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