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….