How about MRFOC? (a much reduced focus on ‘communities’)

Do you sometimes feel – as I do – as if you are working in a different industry to everyone else? From what I read on the topic of ‘Custom Panels and Communities’, which is currently quite a lot, there seems to be a fixation with the term ‘community’. Much of the discussion consists of which acronym to use (MROC, etc.) to best describe what we mean by panels or communities or whatever, while in the research business, at least from my vantage point, the large majority of research clients are really saying something very different.

For the most part in my experience, the following are their primary expressed concerns and desires: In the current climate, they want to spend less or obtain more for the same research budget. They want a faster turnaround of results. They want to be able to easily find and gather feedback from their specific consumer or customer without paying a premium because their targets are low incidence. They want to engage and learn from their consumers and customers in a more continuous, deeper and respectful manner. Secondary desires include: Having their own research asset that is unique and customised PR’ing this effort as it sends the right message to the public at large and contributes to the client being perceived as listening to their consumers and customers Somewhere in most client organisations today there are discussions taking place regarding how to get closer to consumers and customers, and the use of communities might be one vehicle for doing so.

These discussions are occurring in the marketing, sales and CRM functions. There is also the desire to do as much as, or more than their competitors are doing in this area. The business of the market research department is different, though obviously related to these functions and initiatives. I find it difficult to see how market research agencies are appropriately positioned to advise on how to set up and manage online communities when the primary purpose for this type of initiative is typically (and rightly so) focused on marketing and promoting the client’s brand. While there is potentially some learning that can occur by observing the interaction of those who join a so-called community, some very important research considerations need to be kept in mind.

These include: Communities tend to have a very small number of participants (I have never seen a case study that indicates more than 100 or so are members and often times an even smaller number are the active ones) These participants are typically very skewed in their experience, being more ‘vocal’ and with a passion toward the client’s brand (typically good but sometimes bad) The interaction and output is by definition primarily unstructured, making the interpretation, relevance and application to real business issues difficult at best. This is not to say that there is not some value in creating and observing communities; however, it is important to recognise that these communities are not nearly as useful from a research perspective as a custom panel.

So what is a custom panel and how do I define and distinguish it from a community? Custom panels are built and maintained to provide a client with a research asset that can fulfill much of their current sample needs, depending on their research agendas, as well as enabling them to conduct more and other types of research that would otherwise not be possible or economical. Custom panels are recruited from a client’s consumer or customer databases, CRM systems, websites, etc. The profiling can be completely customised to the client’s needs reflecting the way in which they view their brands and business and segment their consumers or customers.

The look and feel can be branded or blinded, depending on the types of research desired, and a lot of focus and attention can be placed on engagement: the number of survey opportunities provided; the look and length of those surveys; the incentives offered; and finally the content published to those who participate, to illustrate to them how their feedback is used and importantly how their opinion compares with their peers. The most common obstacles identified by clients who have considered a custom panel are cost and ensuring that the activity level is consistent enough to sustain the panel.

To address these concerns head on, there is the option of opening their panel to other researchers (in non-competing categories) on a panel exchange platform, thereby maintaining a minimal level of activity whilst providing the client with compensation to help offset the set-up and maintenance costs associated with their panel. The reality of clients today is quite different than what some in the industry have described. I have even seen it suggested in a comment made on one blog that a community is quicker and cheaper than a custom panel.

I find this very difficult to understand and believe when clearly a community involves a considerable budget and a large commitment and buy-in from the client organisation not only on the part of market research but also on the part of marketing, product development and senior management. I would argue that neither a community or custom panel is a quick solution; however, it typically takes 4-6 weeks to set up a custom panel and this provides a more robust and lasting solution than a community.

A custom panel is more cost effective because of its broader uses, and it requires less involvement and investment on the part of the client. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there is no use for communities, indeed I would recommend one to a client should this fit their needs, but I would suggest building a community within / as part of or as an extension of a custom panel. Bottom line – the large majority of clients, across all sectors I see, do not yet have their own custom panel, so this should keep me busy for quite some time to come!

Charles is co-founder and Managing Director of EasyInsites. Charles has an extensive, diverse and highly accomplished background in market research, having started his career 22 years ago in marketing sciences and analytics in the U.S. in key roles at BBDO, McKinsey, AC Nielsen, IRI, and Ipsos. In 2000, Charles moved into the online research space with key roles in both the U.S. and U.K. at Knowledge Networks, MarketTools, Greenfield/Ciao, comScore, and Research Now. Charles has substantial expertise in online research, online panels, research methods, advanced analytics, and syndicated data with extensive experience in the FMCG and Retail sectors. Charles is a regular presenter at industry conferences around the world including ESOMAR, MRS, AIMRI, ARF, CASRO, AMA, MRA and IIR. Charles has a Masters in Quantitative Methods from New York University and a Bachelors in Political Science from The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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