Private Online Communities – why being the perfect dinner party host is the path to deeper insight for co-creation.

The dramatic growth in use of social media by consumers has fuelled a corresponding increase in the use of Private Online Communities (POCs) and their acceptance as a valid research tool. They have much to offer clients who are looking for ways to interact with their customers in order to build brand advocacy and conduct research with a “switched-on” audience.

Despite widespread use, there is still some confusion regarding POCs, probably because:

1. There are a number of terms used for client owned online communities –the aforementioned POCs, Branded Online Communities (BOCs) or Market Research Online Communities (MROCs).

2.  These terms are also often mistakenly used in reference to online panels, especially “private” panels that clients have custom built for research purposes.

Panels and communities are quite distinct. Put simply, a panel is a group of consumers that a client will conduct surveys with  –  perhaps once a month or so. The client asks questions and panelists give their answers in a fairly structured way.

However with a POC, not only can clients ask their community members questions, but also members can interact with the client (or host) and among themselves. The nature of the community allows them to do this in a much more unstructured and ad hoc way. And it’s by opening up these boundaries and restrictions posed by more conventional research, which enables communities to get you closer to your customers.

The growth of social media has meant customers are much more comfortable interacting with organizations in this way. And the parallel growth in web listening, means that clients can have complementary research methods at their disposal that enable them to run communities more effectively. Through web listening one can recruit potential community members, based on the types of comment they post on the internet. Furthermore web listening allows you to identify current hot topics of conversation which can be adapted and used as discussion topics for your online community.

Communities create potential for genuine dialogue and relationship building both among consumer members and with the brand owner. If run correctly, these communities can develop into powerful research tools that also build brand advocacy. The research element is not restricted just to asking questions –when your community members are interacting with one another it’s a great place to simply listen. It’s a bit like finding out what your customers and potential customers think of your brand, once you’ve left the room!

The key to a successful POC is member engagement. This is what sets it apart from other types of research. If community members are highly engaged, they are more likely to take part in research initiatives, more likely to take the time and care to let you know their true feelings (and more likely to discuss brand related issues among themselves).

However, this level of engagement doesn’t just happen overnight. In needs to be nurtured and managed on an ongoing basis by an experienced Community Manager. The successful community manager needs to be a hybrid between a quallie, an administrator and sometimes an entrepreneur. Think of your community comprising a large number of guests for a big dinner party. You have a large room full of individuals with shared interests, but they don’t really know each other and may be reluctant to interact initially. As host, the community manager is there to welcome new joiners, break the ice, provide games and activities for people to get involved in, and subjects for them to talk about. When the conversation begins to flow you are then in a position to listen with interest.

However, while dinner parties have a start and a finish, a community is ongoing and constantly evolving. Now that people are interacting, you need to maintain freshness and buzz in the community to ensure that your members remain actively engaged. There needs to be enough interest and motivation to them coming back to interact with you and with each other. A good community manager will ensure that the community continues to flourish and that you don’t get distracted from responding to your members. It’s very much a reciprocal relationship. If your community becomes neglected and members begin to leave, not only is research weakened, but advocacy is lost and you’ll need to work even harder to get it back.

Whereas the previous role of the research manager may have been more project-orientated, the community manager is more about long term continuous development. Over time you build deeper relationships with consumers and in turn they will provide you with deeper levels of insight. If you are able to make your guests feel welcome and value their involvement, they will begin to feel that they are a part of the inner circle in your company, that they are informed about the outcomes of surveys and discussions, and that they have a stake in processes such as product development.

Because social media allows customers to interact with organizations at the time of their choosing, it’s only fitting that research platforms should try to enhance this experience further. Research has previously been restricted in the degree of interaction it can provide. But by adopting a social media approach and treating your sample as guests or collaborators you can now become the perfect host and really engage with your customers for co-creation.




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