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Learning by standing still: Online communities vs. traditional research

Working with online communities over the last couple of years has led me to really question the overall effectiveness of more traditional methods often deployed for gaining insights.  I have traveled to London, Sao Paulo, Paris, New York, Moscow, Los Angeles, Berlin, Sydney (pauses for breath)… and I could go on to add  cities like Birmingham (UK), Baltimore (US), Manila, and Cairo– on behalf of many different clients and tried to understand consumers in these cities through qualitative research.

Depending on the location and my grasp of the language, I have either moderated focus groups or one-on-one interviews in these cities, or watched someone else do this, often with a translator working feverishly in the background to convey the dialogue in English.

All those air miles, all that jet-lag, all those focus groups I either watched or facilitated over many years.  What did I, and much more importantly my clients, really gain from them?

There are certainly benefits in being able to physically see people, how they interact with each other, and get some sense of what their local environment is like.  But how close do you really get to their true lives?  A focus group facility in Sao Paulo is pretty similar to one in Moscow or Cairo.  They tend to be in the smarter areas of town, and they are neutral, almost sterile, environments in which no-one, except perhaps the moderator, feels entirely comfortable.

Yes, you get to see people up close, but only for a couple of hours.  After that, they are gone, back into their real world.  You don’t know how the attitudes that they expressed so vehemently within those two hours get converted into action the next time they make a buying decision in your client’s category.

And are they real?  I don’t just mean that some people lie outright to get into focus groups.  Much harder to understand is the degree to which people are simply presenting a face that is socially acceptable within a focus group setting in the smart part of town.

I am not saying that community is the salvation for all of these issues, but after a year at Communispace I am certainly experiencing some benefits over traditional focus groups, such as:

  • Learning about consumers’ lives and decisions over the course of a whole year or more and not just in a frantic two hours
  • So, truly having the space and time to develop ideas with consumers and to dig deep
  • Seeing people share much more of themselves, both with us, the facilitators, and with each other, and of course with our clients
  • Having consumers bring their experiences to vivid life, not just in words but in the images and the video that community members will post.

So these are a few of the reasons why I have become a massive fan of gathering insights from my desk.  Or, as the title of this blog post put it, learning by standing still…

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