Phil Hearn: Blogger, Writer & Founder of MRDC Software Ltd.

Market Research Online Communities: How To Start

The presence of market research online communities (or MROCs) has shown steady growth over recent years. Like most technology-based solutions, adoption takes time. Also, like most technology-based solutions, the solution then dies off or shows a spurt, grows quickly and becomes the norm. Online communities are going through that growth stage of development right now.

Where to start?

As a researcher or someone needing to get customer feedback using qualitative research techniques, making that first step to using an online community can be a daunting one. So, what does it take to ‘go online’ and launch an online community? The obvious answers are that you need an online community platform and some people to take part in the community, but let’s look a little deeper.

The Facebook of Research?

I recall making a jokey comment at a conference to someone in research that online communities were like the ‘Facebook of research’. “Not at all”, was the other delegate’s response. “Facebook is mainly friends sharing trivial information whereas online communities are collecting valuable research data”. “Ah”, I responded, “but what might seem trivial to you on Facebook, might be important research data to a friend”. And, thereby lies part of the raison d’etre: online communities can unearth feedback that is very important to your clients.

First things first

Moving on from that anecdote, the most important thing when running your first online community is having a purpose and having a commitment. Like any groups or communities that you belong to in your social life, you can only get the most from that community by being committed. I don’t mean fanatical but committed. This means that you (and your boss, if it applies) will need to ensure that you have enough time to nurture your community – because you need commitment and engagement from your community. This means having time to think about what is going on and investing the time necessary to tease out the potential insight that there is.

Engaged participants

This means that you need your participants in the community to feel that they are valued, engaged and can trust the online community organisers. Moderation of the community becomes an important role where managing people, cajoling, joking and giving something back to your participants is the key to success. In a small community, particularly, this can be something that would be easy to ignore, such as small like having a mechanism to ask a participant about their health if they are unwell for a week.

So, the platform doesn’t matter?

As a vendor of the Communities247 platform, I would like to have been able to put the importance of the platform itself at the top of this page, but, in truth, no platform will bring successful results if the first principles are not followed. But, thankfully, for us, the platform itself does matter because being able to keep your participants engaged is impossible unless you have all the right tools at your disposal.

Why do you need a range of tools?

To keep participants in a community engaged you need a range of activities. Different people are likely to be responsive to different activities. While some people may be willing to discuss topics in depth, sharing their knowledge and views, they may not be less willing to produce a video diary, for example, because that is alien to them. Others, of course, may be comfortable doing a video diary, but not have the time or patience to discuss topics in depth.

Which specific tools do you need?

A good online community platform should allow you to carry out three categories of activities. These are text-based communications, media-based communications and surveys. Let’s look at each of these categories in turn and look at the different types of activities within each category.

a. Text-based communication

There is high value in getting information in text form; it allows participants to convey their thoughts often with greater clarity than they can be articulate in the pressure of a group discussion. The ability to have wall conversations, open discussions, bulletin boards and chat groups with selected groups of participants are all important and necessary functions you will need.

b. Media-based communication

Video and photo diaries and, sometimes, audio diaries offer another dimension to what can be achieved from an online community. Particularly with younger to mid-life groups, video diaries work well and are usually familiar tools for participants to use. It can make a community have a more relaxed, informal feel with greater community spirit if media-based communication is shared. It can also produce gems of knowledge. I recently heard of company that asked participants who use a cooking sauce to shoot a video using their product. They were astonished to find that about 50% of their participants did not use their product as they imagined. That was real insight.

c. Surveys

Polls and surveys are more commonly used tools in quantitative research, but they have an important place in online communities. Quick polls of one question can be useful to get some immediate feedback and promote discussion, particularly when results are shared. Over and above this, it should be possible to embed a survey using whatever software you wish into your online communities platform. For example, you may want to embed a survey using SurveyMonkey, Snap or one of the many other online survey platforms you prefer.

What tasks should be set?

This is not an easy question to answer in a short blog article like this. I think it varies from market to market and from community to community. The age profile and product field will have a bearing on what is likely to work best. We are happy to advise on this if you provide fuller details about your project. However, you should have a clear idea of the goal of your project and it is often obvious what is likely to work best. If you are unsure, it might make sense to run a small community for a week or two weeks to test out your ideas particularly if you are aiming to run a larger or long-term community.

How often should the community be given tasks?

I am often asked this question. My answer is a simple – at least enough (or preferably a bit more) to keep them engaged. You do not want participants leaving the group due to inactivity as recruitment takes time and costs money. Ensuring that the needs of as much of the group as possible are met is key to the success of your community. I would even suggest that if there is a lull in what your client wants from your community, for example, it is better to give the community some activities to keep it ‘ticking over’ and active.

Is there anything else that is important?

I’ve covered what tools need to be available and offered some initial considerations for starting your online community, but are there any other things? The answer is a big YES.

Setting up the community

We find that it is important that you can design and set up the online community yourself. This means that you are not reliant on a supplier to amend or make changes to the look and feel of the online interface with your community. This saves you time and money, but, more importantly, allows you to refine its look and feel as the community develops.


The word ‘gamification’ has become bandied around the market research world in recent years, but it has an important role in an online community. Having the ability to provide activities with incentives, bonus points, offers, benefits with leader boards etc. will have a positive effect on the community. Rather than participants feeling as though ‘they are just providing you information’, it will mean that you can bring a community spirit that is likely to engage everyone more as well as giving rewards to everyone or your best members.


Finally, I think licensing terms are important. Some platforms can only be used on an annual lease basis. This means that you will be paying for ‘off’ periods over the year or when you have fewer active online communities. I think available terms should also be monthly and, preferably, weekly. This means that if you are running your first online community, you can run a trial week to learn and ‘see what works’.


So, there you have it. There’s my guide to carrying out your first online community. There are more questions that you are likely to have, so it doesn’t need to end here. If you want further information or to discuss ideas you have, I am only an email or phone call away. I believe online communities are taking off and making it part of your research offering is becoming essential, in my view.