What Are Brands Really Risking with Online Research Communities?

Not much.  While online research communities (also known as MROCs) seemingly bend many rules of research, brands actually risk more with traditional methods that fail to surface the “whys” behind the numbers.  Quantifying research results does not make them actionable; and brands unwittingly hazard a great deal when they base business decisions on information obtained from a generic sample of unengaged, unmotivated respondents.

Over ten years of experience and research-on-research demonstrate that the rewards of our approach outweigh the risks.  From a methodology standpoint, the online research community itself—when done well—should counteract many of the concerns associated with conventional survey research (see our paper, Leaving Our Comfort Zone: 21st Century Market Research for a detailed argument and list of trade-offs).  Let’s take two research demand characteristics—private setting and brand transparency—as cases in point:

  • Private environment: Private (invitation only, password protected) communities allow brands to introduce proprietary information without fear—members agree to relinquish their intellectual property rights and abide by specific terms and conditions that prohibit them from sharing what goes on in their communities with outsiders.  Privacy also creates a high-trust, relationship-based culture over time, further reinforcing community social norms that foster a climate of safety and respect for everyone participating (members and brands alike).  The freedom and relative safety of private online research communities allow members and sponsoring companies to engage in honest and respectful conversations about extremely delicate topics; members share information that is highly sensitive—medical conditions, financial situations, relationship worries—which they would be reluctant to disclose in public settings.  
  • Branded approach: We always encourage our clients to be transparent about who they are when inviting and engaging customers in community research. It is understandable to be concerned that a branded approach, where research participants know who is asking the questions and why, will make findings less valid.  Our data clearly show, however, that branded communities outperform unbranded ones, and our studies of corporate listening show how feeling heard by a big brand deepens engagement and increases quality.  We have found that when companies trade anonymity for transparency they uncover more textured insights and realize increased value overall.

No doubt that shoddy research in any form poses risks to companies in that it can misinform brand strategy and a slew of other business decisions.  It is on all of us, as consumer insights experts, to align our research methods with our business questions to produce the most insightful, relevant and actionable results.  The risk lies, not in picking one method over another, but in failing to examine or acknowledge the assumptions driving our choices.