Setting up a private online community (POC) can be a daunting prospect. There are many issues to think about, from technology platforms and what research techniques they will support to how you will actually keep members engaged over a long period of time. And this is before you even think about discussion guides and questionnaires and how you will utilise the data you collect! Equally important is how to recruit people to participate in your online community. For they are the life blood of the community research programme, without whom you cannot conduct any surveys. So it’s worth thinking through your “recruitment policy” before you start.

Obviously it makes sense to recruit as cost effectively as possible – this is where harnessing your existing research programmes can really pay dividends. At the end of every survey you run,  if it’s CATI or face-to-face – it’s worth asking respondents for a contact email address so that you can subsequently invite them to join your community – or pitch directly at eh end of online surveys

It is also worth contacting sample that may not have completed a survey. For example, when recruiting for face-to-face interviews, younger respondents who are put off by the prospect, may be far more interested in getting involved in an ongoing online project.

Another avenue for recruitment is using your web listening programmes to generate sample for re-contact. Sentiment monitoring that is able to identify posts and comments at individual level can be a powerful tool in highlighting potential community members. Influencial posters and bloggers can play an important role in shaping your community and stimulating debate.

When appealing for members to join we would advocate that the primary focus is not about financial incentives and rewards. If you rely purely on financial incentives you may be appealing more to “professional respondents” rather than members who have a genuine interest in participation. Professional respondents need to be avoided because they are likely to be members of many panels – looking to fill in online surveys as quickly as possible. This can lead to “straight-lining” or “Christmas tress” where respondents sacrifice truth for speed, and tick boxes in a linear fashion rather than responding to the questions properly.

To attract the right kind of respondent it’s often best to appeal to a higher purpose. If your proposed community is for a good cause then this is quite straight forward, but even if the POC is a commercial one, potential members can be motivated by the prospect of making a difference, getting involved in co-creation, improving products and becoming brand ambassadors. The key here is to keep community members informed as to the purpose of the research and how their feedback has helped move things forward.

There is also another underlying incentive, especially for niche products, or those that have a certain status– and that is for the community to be a forum for like minded people to share experiences, and exchange views and ideas.

There are, of course, more tangible incentives but they needn’t be purely financial. Yes, you can transfer cash direct, using PayPal, and this might be necessary for example getting hard to reach professionals to give up their time – but there are a range of other ways to incentivise.

Cashless incentives such as gift cards or coupons from online retailers often seem more in keeping with an online community. Or sometimes a mixture of gifts and participation in prize draws for money or coveted prizes such as an iPad can work just as well. It’s worth remembering when you run these draws that you make very clear how often people win and who wins what. Otherwise it’s very easy for potential participants to be sceptical. Other cashless prizes include offering free points to participants’ existing loyalty schemes such as, Nectar or Air Miles.

Also, for marketing orientated communities,  the brand owner can offer of free samples, trial samples or discounts on its products . This can help endorse brand preferences as well as incentivise participation. 

Another way of appealing to the greater good and helping local communities or national charities is by setting up donation schemes. It’s a win-win, you can promote a good cause, incentivise your research participants and integrate with your own ongoing CSR programmes for maximum effect.

Your community members can also provide an additional source of potential participants through referral schemes. If members have a positive experience of your community, they will want others to join – especially if they are incentivised to do so. 

When your community is up and running you will experience a degree of respondent “churn” so you need to bear in mind that continual recruitment is required to ensure membership stays fresh and that particular demographics/attitudinal groups can be topped-up as and when necessary.

Once you have recruited your community members you are now up and running. If you can need to keep your members engaged, (look out for more blog posts on this!) you now have a powerful research tool at your disposal. One that can break down the barriers that have previously existed between researchers, consumers and marketers, and one that can generate true insight through co-creation.

About The Author

Steve Cooke

Steve Cooke