How online qualitative research can benefit from the community ‘Engagement Model’

Many researchers see online communities (aka MROCS – Market Research Online Communities) as being a direct threat to the traditional model…

In the spirit of mutuality, rather than seeing them as mutually exclusive rivals, I’d rather look at what one can learn from the other…

The traditional model of qualitative research is simply transferred online, in what is commonly referred to as ‘Online Qualitative Research’.  It is based on the idea that you need to pay a specific group of people, that meet particular recruitment criteria, in order to get them to answer a certain amount of questions, in a research setting of your choice.  The trade off tends to work because you invest hard cash in return for confidence in and control over the study.  Because they are being paid, you can be sure that people will bother to answer what can frankly be quite dry research questions about whatever it may be (from pack designs to media consumption behaviours).

The progressive New MR model of online community research (which typically involves more people, over a longer period of time, recruited from panels, customer databases or e-marketing lists etc.) is founded on a different principle of  ‘engagement’.  Rather than simply paying people for their time (although often an incentive is still involved) you hope to inspire their participation through more emotive means.  By creating and nurturing a community around a shared interest and by feeding that community with regular activities, building relationships with and between members, imbuing it with a sense of importance, you can create enough good-will and interest for people to answer research questions.  It’s more about engagement than cash.

For the value equation to balance, you can see that setting up and managing an online community requires significant investment in terms of time and effort.  The more you put in, the more you get out.  An excellent resource for how to make this happen, is kindly provided by the Online Community expert Richard Millington here.

As Ray Poynter has said before (2007) MROCs represent a power shift from the researcher, to the participant. You no longer ‘own’ people’s attention.  Instead you have to earn it.  With that, comes a loss of control but a gain in efficiency (assuming clients commission enough projects to justify the management investment).

To many traditionalists the idea of losing control is like falling off what was previously considered a flat Earth…but rather than rail against the new, I think the ‘Online qual’ model can benefit hugely from the ‘engagement’ approach.

Online qual. studies can enjoy increased participation and efficiency by deepening engagement.  To that end, here’s three lessons that can be learnt from online communities (MROCs):

1) Emphasise its importance: The more you build up the importance of the project, the more they will want to add value.  Explain that their comments could shape important decisions.  Remind them of how critical their input is to you being able to do your job properly.

2) Tap into passion:  understand how to inspire the group by knowing what they are into and providing content that sparks their interest beyond the incentive e.g. culturally compelling stimulus.  Or simply phrase questions in a playful way, create competitive dynamics and give people the latitude to answer laterally.

3) Regularly engage:  do not ask the bear minimum in order to save consultancy time or cope with busy schedules.  Invest proper time in sparking debate and make sure that time investment is covered in the initial cost to the client. 

The principles of mutuality runs through all of this.  The more you give people through your conversation (whether that be pure financial incentive, a sense of achievement or simply social interaction) the more they will give you in return.  Limiting that value exchange to money alone, is….limiting….


  1. Simon Riley 
    Nice post – it is potentially a paradigm shift though I wonder if that’s what most MROC currently are. I think clients and researchers still want to – and do – own them and see them as tools for their ends, rather than the organic resource they could be.
    There is also a question about the objectivity of longer term communities, whether the act of being in it starts to affect behaviour (particularly if participants get to know who the end client is).


  2. Tom Woodnutt 
    Thanks for your comment Simon, and I agree you have a point.I suppose it depends on the MROC examples you look at and which dimensions you judge them on. I was focusing on the reward structure and think that the move from £60 for two hours of a participant’s time (in traditional face-to-face research), to much less money for even more time (in the community model), requires a different mindset and engagement strategy. Also when you allow open discussions that are participant driven, it becomes even more different from the practices and assumptions in traditional research (which are obviously much more controlling and client-driven).

    However, you could argue many MROCs still involve ‘cash / other incentives’ and so are not true departures from the old model (they’re certainly not as organic as other online communities outside of the world of research).

    I do think that online qual and even traditional research could learn from that engagement-led mindset, which is more focused on motivating and inspiring useful insights than on control (and often boring people to death).

    As you say, there is often a bias to consider in MROCs. So if you want a nationally representative sample then a community isn’t as strong as traditional panel or qual recruitment methods. There’s always a trade-off…but research is so often non-scientific and contains bias…and given the pressure for speed, low cost and vivid insights, I think the industry needs to become more pragmatic and less purist at times….


  3. FlexMR (@_FlexMR) 
    Although in online communities you may not own people’s attention, we find there can sometimes be a level of participant investment in the research. Quite often, when brands correctly use online communities to their full extent, participants feel as though their opinions are genuinely influencing the brand and the decisions made around it. This is also an important factor at times, because it can mean that there is almost a dyadic relationship between researchers and participants. It definitely fits into the idea of a progressive, engagement led mindset – and this article hits on a lot of good points that are quite current at the moment too.