Communities are going to be even bigger in 2021

CommunitiesPosted by Ray Poynter, 28 December 2020


Communities have become a mainstream of market research and I think they are going to be even bigger in 2021 as the result of four key causes.

Communities have been used for market research for about 20 years, with early adopters being companies like Communispace, Join the Dots and Vision Critical. By 2010 communities had become mainstream and their best practices were described in a chapter in my book The Handbook of Online and Social Media Research. Over the last ten years communities have become increasingly common, with most international companies running multiple communities, with multiple suppliers.

Causes of Change

There are four major causes re-shaping the world of insights at the moment”

  1. The pandemic
  2. Concerns about data quality
  3. The devolution of research
  4. A shift to human centricity

These four causes are having a major impact on the way communities are being used by both agencies and in particular end clients.

The Pandemic

The corona virus has disrupted insights in two ways. The first disruption has been the near abandonment of face-to-face research in many countries and the second is the economic problems created by the pandemic.

The shift to online, away from face-to-face research, has had its biggest impact in terms of qualitative research. Many companies and researchers have been using online qualitative research for many years, but there were also many who stayed with face-to-face research. In 2020, most qualitative research has been conducted online, combining traditional online techniques such as forums with other options such as smartphone video-based ethnography. In terms of long-term communities, the key benefit has been their ability to identify research participants, based on their profiled histories and their willingness to take part in online qualitative exercises. In the days of face-to-face qualitative research, communities suffered from having their members geographically dispersed, but the shift to online meant that this geographic dispersion was an advantage.

The economic problems (ESOMAR have estimated that in 2020 the global drop in market research revenues will be about 20%-25%) have created a need for companies to do more with less. Although revenues (for most companies) have dropped, the number of projects has tended to increase. Companies with long-term communities have diverted more of their research projects to their communities – enabling them to do more with less. Long-term communities allow an increased amount of research to be conducted (for the same amount of money) because of their key characteristics. These characteristics are: pre-profiled members, built-in tools for surveys and online qualitative research, simplified analysis options, and an agreed incentive scheme.

Short-term communities, sometimes called pop-up communities (which last for a few days, weeks, or months) have experienced a boom because of the move away from face-to-face qualitative research. These communities tend to be smaller than long-term communities (tens or hundreds of members, instead of thousands) and they tend to be mostly qualitative.

There is a widespread hope that in 2021 and 2022 it will become more and more possible to conduct face-to-face research, including depth interviews, focus groups and accompanied shopping. However, clients are already saying that only some of their research will return to face-to-face. Clients have discovered that there are many situations where online techniques provide a good solution. A solution that is faster, cheaper, and capable of creating useful transcripts and videos.

Problems with Data Quality

There have been concerns about the quality of online data for many years, especially in terms of online access panels. Despite the best efforts of the panel companies, the problems with data quality seem permanent. The key problems appear to be fraudulent and careless respondents. At worst the fraudulent respondents might be bots, programmed to collect incentives. At worst the careless respondents are not reading the instructions and are clicking through surveys as quickly as possible. The consequence of these problems is that data from online access panels is often unreliable.

By contrast, long-term communities provide a reliable source of research participants. Organisations know who their members are, they have a history of what people have said in the past, and they share a community of interest with their members. It is in community members’ best interests to help improve the organisation.

There will still be situations where organisations need to use online access panels, for example, to research customers of other brands, but even in these cases the community can provide reference points to help assess the value and meaning delivered from the access panels.

The Devolution and Democratisation of Research

In the past, research used to be conducted mostly by research agencies and it was commissioned mostly by client-side insight teams. In combination, these two were the providers and gatekeepers of quality research. However, this picture is changing. Research (conducted by ESOMAR and over 20 partners (including JMRA) in 2020) suggested that nearly 50% of all research projects are conducted internally by organisations. This shift of research from agencies to clients, and from insight teams to other teams, has several names, including democratisation and agile, but its key feature is devolution. Most of this devolved research is tactical, rather than strategic. Designers need to test ideas, marketers need to test executions, service teams need to assess satisfaction and experience.

Communities are an essential part of this devolution for several reasons. Communities reduce the costs of each research project, there are no agency fees or system costs for one more project, especially if the organisation has a DIY option. Communities increase the speed of research, because of the pre-profiled members, the array of standardised tools, and the willingness of members to take part. The final key benefit is that communities reduce the risk of conducting research, because of its standardised tools and approaches – which makes communities suitable for non-market researchers to conduct primary market research.

The Emergence of Human Centricity

Historically, brands used to focus on products and services. A brand would design a new car, or financial service, or a new pasta meal and would then seek to find customers for this product or service. That was the age of product-centricity, the idea that if you build a better mousetrap, people will flock to buy it. Over the last 20 years, there has been a shift to customer-centricity and customer experience (CX). The growth of customer centricity is illustrated by the rise in the use of CX studies, NPS, and indeed communities.

The latest shift in focus is towards human centricity, often denoted as HX (Human Experience). This movement shuns the idea that people only exist when they are customers, or when they are viewers, or users. Customer centricity assumes that people rotate around brands and that they have ‘pathways to purchase’. Human centricity sees that brands rotate around people and that the brand needs to find out how and when to be relevant to people.

Long-term communities are essential to this people focus. Research needs to be longitudinal to understand how people change over time. Research also needs to explore what people do when they are not being customers, or viewers, or users of the brands products and services. As the American guru Seth Godin has said “Don’t find customers for your products. Find products for your customers.”

One of the tools that has been developed to understand people is the concept of T-shaped research. T-shaped research combines a broad measure (such as a brand tracking, social media listening, or CX research) with the depth of a long-term community. The broad measures are like the cross bar of the T, and the community is the vertical stick of the T, giving greater depth. The broad measures are representative of the market and provide KPIs. The community allows the underlying needs and motivations to be explored, giving sense to the broad measures.

Five Action Points For Communities

Here are five things that you can be doing to maximise the benefits of communities over the next few years.

  1. Adopt a longitudinal approach. A relationship is not a series of first dates, it needs to be developed over time. Look for systems that allow you to understand people across time.
  2. Ensure you have online qualitative and quantitative tools, including online focus groups, online forums, and smartphone/video tasks.
  3. Make 80% of your work simpler/quicker. You want more and more people in your organisation to be able to benefit from research, so you need to create standardised approaches for the 80% that will be tactical.
  4. Be people-centric, find out what your members do when they are not buying or consuming your products/services. Find out what their unmet needs are and assess which of those needs your organisation could help with.
  5. Integrate your tools to create T-shaped research. Your broad research tools, e.g. trackers and CX programs, should utilise your community for deep dives, to understand the big picture generated by the broad-based research.

BTW, one of the exciting developments for me in 2021 is the strategic partnership between Potentiate and Verve – two companies with a strong community offer. In my role as Chief Research Officer with Potentiate I will be heavily involved in our joint innovations in the area of communities in 2021.

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