Effective online communities – the benefits and challenges: a summary of our breakfast seminar

Last week FreshMinds hosted a breakfast seminar on using online communities to gain insight from consumers, attended by insight professionals from a host of global brands including Visa, Samsung and Virgin.

The event kicked off with a talk from Wendy Lewis, Online Community Manager at the Greater London Authority (GLA). Wendy manages Talk London, a long-term online community used to consult with Londoners on a range of issues – from housing to healthcare, which is transforming the way the GLA conducts research for developing policy.  Valuable insight from this community is helping to shape decisions made at City Hall. The advantages of this approach over more traditional methodologies include reduced cost, increased speed and breadth of research, as well as the ability to go back and probe respondents on specific answers at a later date.

Our second speaker was Jill Sarsfield, Research Director at FreshMinds, on using pop up online communities for early stage communications development. Jill discussed how these short-term communities (2-4 weeks in duration) are perfectly suited to obtaining inspiration and feedback from consumers on brand territory and campaign concepts.  The approach is iterative and collaborative – involving the brand, marketing, insight and creative teams. Jill argued that by seeking consumer input at this early stage, brands are able to weed out the weak ideas early and focus the team on developing a creative route that resonates strongly with the target audience, drives the desired outcomes and delivers on long term brand objectives.

Following our guest speakers was a thought-provoking group discussion on online communities, from which 4 key challenges emerged:

How do I incentivise respondents?

To ensure respondents’ participation in an online community, they need to be suitably incentivised. For some respondents, the chance to engage with and shape the future strategy of their favourite brand is incentive enough, but others need more tangible benefits – ranging from cash to spot prizes to luxury experiences.

Should I use a long-term community or a short-term community?

For many insight professionals, choosing between a long-term and short-term community is a difficult decision. Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule that dictates when a long-term community should be used or when a short-term community would be better – the decision is dependent on a combination of factors, including the use case for the community, the type of respondents you are looking to engage and the business challenge you need to address.

How do you keep respondents engaged?

Another challenge facing insight professionals is how to keep respondents engaged in communities. We discussed a range of strategies including creating engaging content, running a series of creative activities and fostering a real sense of community amongst respondents. The integration of mobile has also gone a long way to making communities more engaging – with ‘mobile missions,’ such as filming a shopping trip, providing a more enjoyable experience for respondents. Harnessing mobile in this way has the added benefit of capturing in-the-moment insight, avoiding the need to rely on recall.

Do I have the resource to run an online community?

As we heard from Wendy, running an online community is no easy task – for it to be a success, you need to commit the necessary time and resource to managing the community. This is especially the case with large, long-term communities, which can sometimes require a dedicated community manager to keep respondents engaged and draw out key insights. If you don’t have the capacity for this, pop-up communities, which engage a smaller group of respondents over a shorter amount of time, can be a better option.

We’d love to hear about your experiences of using online communities. Have you struggled with similar challenges?