Online communities are everywhere. Brands and market researchers alike are beginning to realise they can be used not only to engage with their customers, but also to garner crucial insight, and numbers are expected to grow by 30 to 40 per cent in 2013.
If your business owns a well managed and up-to-date website, Twitter or Facebook page, the chances are it already has a community in some shape or form, or at least the nucleus of one. But how can it be structured to yield the best results? How should brands go about converting idle conversation into hard business data and meaningful qualitative insights?
Put simply, a good definition of an online community is the connection of a group of people online who, united by a common interest, are made to feel part of something special. Brands that invest time and capital into cultivating these groups stand to benefit through any number of ways, be it through development of a deeper understanding of who represents their target audience, how they are benchmarked against competitors, recruitment of passionate brand ambassadors, or brainstorming new ideas or ad campaigns.
Once the corporate purpose of the community has been decided—the general purpose or theme will have emerged organically by virtue of the people involved—the build structure and management strategy will become clearer. These will decree how and when the brand should engage with members, what ‘on-site’ activities are available to them to keep interest high, and what the research plan should look like, which will ultimately reveal the kind of insights likely to be returned.
So what do businesses need to do to best generate usable data from their online communities?
Recruit a community manager
Successful online communities don’t run themselves. There needs to be someone responsible for monitoring activity and ensuring the members stay happy and tuned in. Individuals will feel valued knowing there is a dedicated person who cares about what they have to say and can answer their questions. So this person will also be responsible for nurturing positive, two-way relationships with top members. The best community managers are those that know the brand or theme of the community well, have thoughtful insights to share, can address member enquiries and have expertise in moderating discussions.
Recruit a panel manager
Panel management is the most forgotten and misunderstood part of managing a community. Someone needs to do the ‘back-room’ administration—everything from answering hundreds of member emails concerning technical questions, to ensuring incentives are administered properly, ensuring the right balance of activities, reporting on community-panel health, and finally replenishing with new members when they determine it is needed.
Remember the roaming consumer
Community members will be checking in using a variety of mobile devices. Factor this into the build programme and researchers will benefit from the opportunity to engage in real time on a more ad hoc basis. If the survey flexes to the technology and meets the needs of the user, the brand can expect to receive answers quickly and easily, as well as benefiting from improved engagement and sustained participation over time, leading ultimately to better results.
Adapt surveys to fit
Within a multimedia environment, surveys can take on a new lease of life, so get creative and catch members’ attention through use of fun, interactive graphics, gaming and video. Let them do the same by returning photos, graphics or video clips to supplement their written answers. The traditional paper surveys are no longer suitable—online respondents need clear, concise layouts with plain “English”, straightforward questions and carefully crafted bias, differentiation and orientation.
Recognise and reward
Members will appreciate recognition for their contributions, and if a member is sufficiently incentivised, either through a points scheme, vouchers or branded products, the likelihood is that they will remain energised and loyal for longer.
No online community can be built in a day. Productive communities take time and manpower to create and evolve. Some businesses find the outsourcing of this process helpful. But once up and running, there is boundless potential for a brand to connect with and learn from its target audience.
Julie Paul is senior vice president, online communities with Toluna.