So what?

Where next for online communities?

As the context for brands shifts in dramatic and unpredictable ways, the requirement of customer insight, and the ways of working shift too. Which model will help us hardwire the customer in to business and lead to customer inspired growth?

We are on the cusp of a wave of innovation in communities.

How can we move beyond research – to a place where customers genuinely drive business growth?
It used to be good to talk… now it’s good
to tap.

Paul Lee, Analyst, Deloitte

Some of the innovation around online insight communities will doubtless come from solving the three challenges discussed earlier in this report. However, we see other paths to innovation.

Technology is perhaps the most obvious. Like all digital experiences, communities are increasingly mobile first.

People have often worried about contribution levels for research on mobile devices. But mobile technology has caught up. And our habits have changed accordingly.

Deloitte’s 2016 study into smartphone usage has showed an increasing move from voice calls to messaging and video services, with more than a quarter of users in 2015 never using their phone to make a call. That rate has doubled in four years.

As our own research has shown, you can get the same quality of responses on tablets as on a desktop. It’s true that smartphone contributions are slightly shorter. However, what really improves contribution is keeping the research simple and likeable.

In practice this means reducing the number of questions you ask, building a relationship with people and explaining the context in which the work will be used.

If you put the same open-ended question on a private community and a Google Consumer Survey, the private community delivers 80% longer responses. Why? They care. You’ve built a relationship and they know why they’re doing it.

As Roy Langmaid , C Space’s psychologist in residence and co-founder, puts it: “To open up the question, you have to first open up the person.”

At C Space, we build all our communities ‘mobile first’ as standard – so that we can use a comprehensive suite of on-the-go tools alongside desktop and tablet functionality. It’s opened up a world of possibility for us. We’re able to get into places and spaces that have never been obtainable, either through traditional research methodologies, or from the limitations of a hard wired desktop computer.

Increasingly, we ask our members to report on what they’re seeing through rich video content (to complement what we learn through more traditional discussions and surveys). This footage is automatically transcribed within our platform and is therefore searchable. We can catalogue, search and see what people think, at scale – something that seemed a pipedream as recently as 12 months ago.

And under the hood, we’ve been using automated analysis to observe shifts in opinion over time, though all content sources. Our platforms can intelligently monitor sentiment and flag changes so that we can follow up with our members and ask ‘why’? For qualitative suppliers, this kind of automation allows us to think smarter and process more information, at scale and over time – to provide deeper longitudinal insight for our clients over time.

Technology and tools are only a part of the answer, however. While we spend a lot of time developing our tech to better engage our members and to improve member experience and engagement, we also know that in the online community space, technology is a hygiene factor.

So while the functional benefits of an ‘off the shelf’ tech solution often appear to be the most cost effective, we see and hear that clients are looking for more from their agencies than just a suite of tools.

To open up the question, you have to first open up the person.

People often talk as if we have to choose between fast innovation cycles and slower more strategic thinking. We believe communities can support both.

To try to generate competitive advantage the world’s leading companies are turning to their customers. This isn’t new news. In its 2013 study of over 4,000 C-suite executives, IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that CEOs claimed customers exerted a bigger influence on strategy than all but the C-Suite itself.

However, brands can still struggle to reconcile the rhetoric of ‘customer-centricity’ with the actions required to achieve it. Customer centricity can feel like an empty promise. Why?

We think the answer is two-fold:

First, we know that collecting Insight & Business Intelligence is only a part of the answer. Collecting and interpreting the data is only one side of the coin. Insight without change isn’t valuable. It isn’t seen, heard or acted upon. Now, more than ever there is a need for Insight teams to play a significant role in shaping C-Suite decisions – and these teams will need to look for agency partners who can deliver ‘beyond the platform’ to help drive meaningful change within their organizations.

Second, acknowledging that customer needs will play more of a role in shaping business decisions, the very nature of ‘business consultancy’ will start to change.
The most successful brands will need to solve for emotional or desirable needs – like making customers smart or proud about their decisions (over functional or frictional needs like queue length or delivery times). But solving emotional challenges at sale is hard. Reconciling emotion at scale, and transforming this to positive business change (and ultimately growth), even trickier.

We believe that the more intimate, on-going, two-way relationship with customers that communities can provide is the single biggest opportunity for the most progressive businesses; their secret sauce. But to unlock success, providers and suppliers will need to demonstrate capabilities beyond insight alone. This kind of challenge requires thinking and capabilities that extend beyond a single research channel or methodology. It requires agency thinking that combines rich qual with broad quant – and more emphasis will be placed on the need for agencies to be able to tell compelling, more relevant stories around what they’re discovering.

There are always other sources of big data. If you want incredibly fast questionnaires, new breeds of on-demand, disintermediated panel providers can deliver that.

Communities can deliver some of this too, and many businesses will continue to look for blended approaches.

But the trust and relationship that can be established within a private community over time unlocks completely different opportunities.

In an on-demand panel, you can test hypotheses you already have. You’re less likely to discover something completely unexpected or genuinely understand the ‘why’ behind the data.

You can ask open-ended questions, but the results you’ll get are as different as asking a question of a stranger in the street versus a friend over a fire-side chat.

It’s the space you make, not the question you ask, that makes the difference.

If you’re thinking that online communities are solely a cheap substitute for qualitative research, stop. Right now.

In the same way that qualitative research rapidly became a commodity, what Roy Langmaid called ‘questionnaires in armchairs’, we run the risk of eroding the potential of online communities. A dead end.

Increasingly we see a schism. Organisations need quicker and cheaper. But they also need relevant and thoughtful. Digital research, especially communities, have been seen as a route to fast, cheaply.

People often talk as if we have to choose between fast innovation cycles and slower more strategic thinking.

We believe communities can support both.

We need be fast and slow. Communities can help us optimise an advert for launch next week, or help us follow a mother’s journey from first scan to first steps.

With this as a mandate, we believe we are on the cusp of seeing a new wave of exciting, innovative usage of communities.

To do this though, we have to celebrate what makes communities special.

At their best, they are not a technological platform where research activities happen. They are a portal to customers’ lives. A window on the world, not a website.

A window integrated with all kinds of data sources to help brands make better decisions. They have the potential to help brands gain greater insight, collaboratively learn and develop new products, new services and strategy with and for their customers and consumers.

To deliver this, we need to go beyond cash for questions and obsess with building relationships.

From our research, we believe that the brands that are getting the most value and impact from their communities are those that recognise the value in these relationships.

They see their communities as an opportunity to bring the customer inside their business. A catalyst for change and a way of driving growth. Customer inspired growth.

We recognize that we can’t solve everything ourselves, that the customer plays an important part in co-creating with us.

Jennifer Hsieh, VP of Insight, Strategy & Innovation, Marriott International