Whenever we launch a new online research community we get the inevitable question from our clients…
“Should I setup a profile and participate in the research community?”
It’s something we struggled with for a little bit before deciding on the answer:
Read on for the pros and cons of participating in your online research community if you are a client-side researcher, marketer or stakeholder with a vested interest in the output of the community.
The Pros – Why companies should participate directly in their online research community
Here are a few reasons why it might make sense to have employees of the sponsoring company participate in their research community:
- It can make community members feel like it’s more authentic and they have a direct voice – One of the primary motivations for member participation in an online research community is often the desire to help shape the direction of a brand, product or service. They just love to know they’re really being heard. When a company steps in as an active member in the research community, it can significantly boost this sense of being heard, by providing them (and the sponsoring companies) a direct way to communicate with each other.
- It can make clients feel more involved in the process – When clients are community members, they face the same user experience as members. They get a sense of what it’s like and what the “hot button” issues are as they are participating in the activities, leading to activities that are better in-line with what participants want to naturally discuss.
- It can “humanize” the sponsoring company – Creating profiles and sharing select personal information of company employees helps “humanize” the company and provides a face to the sponsoring organization.
- It’s in the spirit of social media & community – This might be a bit of a stretch, but part of the “spirit” of social media is really about participation. Consumers appreciate when companies are involved in the conversation and form an authentic dialogue with them, as it shows they care more about them and how they can satisfy customer needs.
The Cons – Why companies should not participate directly in their online research community
While there are potential benefits, below are some drawbacks to having companies directly participate in their online research community:
- Community members may feel a bit awkward and less likely to open up – Part of the beauty of having an “unbiased voice” in the form of independent community moderators is that participants feel like they can candidly express their opinions about a company. Invite the company into the conversation and this feeling may go away, leaving some members of the community to potentially feel like they are unable to truly open up and share their thoughts, especially if they establish a connection with a company employee.
- Clients sometimes ask biased questions – No offense to anyone out there on a client-side research team, but I’ve seen some badly phrased and biased questions come out of clients. It’s not that client-side researchers are not able to develop great questions (quite the contrary), it’s just that their minds are often so wrapped in the product, company acronyms and corporate speak that they often can’t form a question that is going to translate well to the audience. Leave it to the researchers and moderators to take an unbiased look at the community and develop questions accordingly.
- Clients rarely have time – People start off with the best intentions to participate regularly, but often end up getting dragged away from the research community to their other responsibilities. If clients decided to initially become members of the research community, that might leave community members wondering why the client suddenly doesn’t show up. Is it because they don’t care anymore? They don’t think the feedback is valuable?
- What starts as research could end up as customer service – Issues around customer service are often hot topics in research communities. If a client has a profile, you can expect to find a number of customer service and support questions posed to them in the form of comments on their page. This can be a nightmare for clients if it isn’t managed properly.
- “Too many cooks in the kitchen” – The old saying is true in research communities as well. Sometimes it’s best to have a small team of moderators managing the research community, rather than having too many parties involved. A single voice can help provide needed consistency for community members, and ensure their experience as members is positive.
What is PluggedIN’s recommendation?
More often than not we recommend that companies stay away from participating directly in their online research community, in favor of waiting for the monthly reports and developing reports back to the community on what they are doing with the findings. Sending monthly reports back to research community members has the same effect as participating, only without the drawbacks. Clients are usually very relieved to hear this recommendation.
I like to draw the comparison to an in-person focus group… Many of the same concerns about bias exist if a backroom company observer decided to step into the room and participate directly in the conversation. Members may feel a bit awkward and less likely to open up, for fear of offending the employee. The employee may ask questions or pose thoughts that are (unknowingly) biased.
With observer access into a research community, it’s effectively like watching the action as it unfolds anyway. Having a profile might make you part of the action, but be wary of the drawbacks before stepping into the “room.”
What do you think?
Phew, that was a long blog post… Time to hear what you think! Are we missing a pro or a con? What have your experiences been like? Feel free to leave a comment below!