The focus group (online or in person) is a tried-and-true method for gleaning qualitative insight from a subset of your target audience. One of the most attractive benefits of the focus group is the presence of a trained moderator, who can direct and manage conversations so as to target specific questions in order to obtain the results that you are looking for.
The answers to these questions can produce valuable insights that drive marketing decisions and fuel additional quantitative research, both of which amp up business performance.
Expanding your options
But what are your options when you need qualitative reactions from a larger group of people? Or if you’re not exactly sure what your focus should be? What if you don’t even know what issues you need to address? How do you reach your target audience and get them talking freely about what they like, what they don’t like, and what they’d like to see in the future?
For many companies, the answer to this dilemma is to develop an online community. In an online community, your customers can interact not only with a moderator, who sets the ball rolling on precise exercises, but also with each other.
This produces dual benefits. First, it lets researchers drill down on specific issues. Second, it provides ample opportunity for community members to raise new topics that cannot be obtained from the strict structure of a focus group.
The format allows for many conversations to coexist at one time, and not all of these conversations will pertain to the original topic presented. These side conversations could be vitally important as they allow for the company to learn about problems that may not have been considered priorities or to find issues that they may not have known existed.
During a recent study, we discovered new information about a particular issue that the company had not previously thought about. This topic is now going to be explored further in a future study.
The walled garden
Keeping these communities invitation-only allows researchers and their clients a way to interact with customers within the proverbial “walled garden.”
With online communities, there are 2 ways that companies can learn from consumers: through branded communities or blind communities.
With a branded community, you can build your own community framework complete with your own branding and company logo. The community simply appears to be an extension of your website. These communities are extremely successful when companies want to learn from their own customers about topics such as product packaging or brand image.
On the other hand, blind communities are created on a different platform and are not visibly aligned with any specific brand. These communities are generally used to talk to people who are not your customers. They are effective in obtaining direct and honest feedback.
With either type of online community, there is the opportunity to run topic-driven sessions for short periods of time to deal with a specific set of concerns, or to run the community as a permanent website that is always available to members.
The short-term session is an excellent method both for defining the parameters of an upcoming quantitative study and for identifying future research paths to be explored. Long-term communities, meanwhile, let customers bring up concerns as they arise, allowing businesses to monitor subjective feedback in real time.
Each type of online community has specific advantages that respond to different needs. Whether your intent is to keep a constant eye on customer satisfaction or to gauge their opinion on a time-sensitive decision, a community can satisfy your objectives.