The rise of Online Communities as the centre of market research
Once believed to be a minor player, online communities have become a central pillar of an effective research strategy now that consumers, governments, and companies rely on virtual interactions.
Online Research Communities have been growing in importance as a central pillar of an effective research strategy for many years due to the benefits they unlock: centralized research management, ongoing engagement with important constituencies, flexibility of methodology deployment, and ROI to name just a few. However, prior to 2020, they were not necessarily strategically mission-critical.
Like so much in our world, the impact of Covid-19 has changed that.
As the crisis unfolded in Q1/Q2, we saw several dramatic changes that impacted research organizations rapidly:
- Communication became almost entirely digitally centric, with face-to-face interactions curtailed virtually to the point of complete cessation for large portions of the population.
- Consumer behaviors, values, and planning began to shift in response to new realities. Maslow’s Hierarchy was validated once again as many people were focused on safety and security as primary motivators in a way unseen outside of wartime.
- Brands, governments, NGOs, and all companies who serve them were under immense pressure to urgently engage and understand these changes in both immediate and long-term contexts.
- Budget pressures increased for many buyers of research, with some under extreme duress, while their information needs were only increasing.
- Social and emotional impacts for many people were extreme, resulting in a newfound willingness, even need, to connect with others including researchers.
Those are just the most obvious trends, but they clearly pointed to the Online Community as a potential solution, and we saw that reflected in the business performance of the category. Recollective and virtually every company that offers solutions in the Community/Digital Qualitative space saw a massive and incredibly rapid shift to their platforms in response to new market dynamics. This shift has also spurred a new surge of innovation as supplier companies rise to the occasion to meet the evolving needs of users.
Online Communities are here to stay
For those of us that have been advocates of communities and virtual qualitative for many years, this shift made perfect sense, as previously outlined herein. However, the question before us now is whether this was a short-term reaction or a long-term strategic shift? Certainly, it started as the former, but I believe it is now the latter. Covid-19 has been the impetus for a “tipping point”, and there is no going back now. The key stakeholder groups have adapted to what truly is the “new normal” in the research world:
- Buyers of research have been convinced that they can successfully duplicate the information needs of qualitative research in an online environment while saving the expense and liability issues associated with face-to-face research. Unless the research requires some level of sensory input (touch, taste, smell) or has an experiential component (car clinics, shop alongs, etc..) virtual qual is here to stay and will be the new majority use method.
- Consumers are now comfortable engaging via video for almost all aspects of information sharing and allowing others into their lives via video. The ubiquity of cameras in a myriad of devices combined with continual enhancements to internet bandwidth makes the barrier to usage minimal in most of the developed world, and with the scaling of internet satellite systems, soon the whole world.
- Users of research now know they can get information needs met quickly via digital channels and can cost-effectively build long-term engagement channels with constituent groups relatively easily. They are seeing the ROI of insights, especially proprietary communities and panels, and will continue to support them.
With all these factors in mind, I think it is clear now that we will continue to see the large-scale adoption of online communities as one of the central pillars of research operations, and the development of further innovations to increase cost and speed efficiencies while empowering greater quality and impact of insights. I wish it hadn’t taken a global pandemic and all the negative aspects of this situation for so many to get here, but Necessity is the Mother of Invention and I am grateful companies like Recollective and their peers were here to help make the transition as easy as possible. The world has changed, but Online Research Communities and all the great benefits they provide are here to stay.
Author: Leonard Murphy