Nowadays people are increasingly comfortable with the idea that the internet is “social” – not solely the domain of isolated nerds sitting in their bedrooms in front of green screens of code. Social media and social networks aren’t just abstractions, they’re places where very real relationships play out. 20-30% of couples meet through online dating – and I’m sure my family’s not the only one to keep in touch by Facebook just as much as phone. Social media is part and parcel of everyday social interaction.
But the market research industry can still be rather wary of digital methods – just witness how many times “But is it representative?!!!” is used to (try to) write off social media research. And it can be the much same with online research communities. There’s a lot of focus on their short-comings vis-à-vis face-to-face qualitative methods – and not enough information or imagination on how we as researchers can work with this medium and work with the patterns of online social behavior that have become familiar to people in the last 5-10 years.
So that’s what we’re going to in this blog post: talk about how you can generate emotional and collaborative engagement in online communities. Closeness, creativity and depth can happen online as well as off.
Here are 5 ways how to make that happen:
1. Agree and Disagree
Sometimes it is as simple as telling participants to go find someone else’s community response that they agree with and another that they disagree with and comment on it. It forces the participants to read through what other people have said, getting acquainted with the other members of the community. For concept evaluations, this lets us know which ideas really hit a nerve or gained traction amongst the community. People often find others who mention something they originally hadn’t thought about, but agree with, revealing opinions that might not have come to the surface otherwise.
In other projects such as ideation, this is a necessary step in beginning to form the community necessary for higher forms of collaboration. Remember, an online community doesn’t just have to be hierarchical, with the moderator broadcasting to participants and them feeding back individually. With good task design we can create horizontal, peer-to-peer interactions where people connect and build on each others ideas – a much more truly ‘co-creative’ interaction.
2. Idea Share
In this style of task, participants are asked to share ideas around something new. We often do this when coming up with concepts for new technologies. For instance, when looking at a new skin care technology, we asked participants not only to post a few ideas of what to call it, but to also look at what the others have said, commenting on when they thought another person had had a good idea. More than getting people to vote on ideas, this actually encouraged the ideas to spread. People naturally read what others had written and were inspired when writing their own responses. This allowed us to see what ideas really caught on and had potential, so we could explore them in later tasks.
3. Advice Exchange
When researching pain points and new ideas for how to solve them, we often set up an “advice exchange” forum. Imagine Yahoo! Answers, but with a select group of people doing all the asking and answering. That’s what this is like.
We’ve done this for an ideation community developing a new form of dish soap. We got a bunch of mothers from all over the country online, and one of their tasks was to post about their “nightmare dishes” to wash, and then see if they could help any of the others with their problems. This revealed not only the pain points of washing dishes – but also how they are currently solving them and if they are happy with their solutions. This could then be used as a springboard for new product ideation. Beyond that very functional benefit, it was also a big team building exercise as the women learned about each other and helped each other.
4. Build and Grow
In this type of task we begin to ask the participants to move beyond a simple “I agree” or “I disagree” and to start to build on what others have said.
For instance, in a community we did for a national charitable organization, we asked participants to imagine what the consequences would be if that organization disappeared – and then find someone else’s response and add another way something would have changed to their response. This allowed us to understand how they perceived the charitable organization – did it fill a unique gap in their communities, or was it just one of many? Who would step up to fill the void if the organization disappeared? This mimicked the types of conversations we might have seen in a face to face group as new ideas for who would step up and pick up the slack were added to the discussion and gained advocates, in turn telling us how our client fit in the participants’ communities.
5. Figure It Out Together
This leads us to the final type of task, where we ask people to come up with something as a group. This can be writing a letter, or answering a question.
For instance, in one community we ran for a national TV brand, we showed the group a few pop-culture moments that had been discussed by the community in a previous task. Then we asked why they think those particular pop culture moments were so big. People grouped up to talk about why any one particular moment was discussed more than the others, collaboratively coming to conclusions.
While there are plenty of tools researchers can use to gain this level of engagement, there is more to it than just the type of tasks or activities research participants are asked to complete. The key is to help the participants see themselves as a community early on by starting off with some of the simpler and easier collaborative tasks and moving up to the more involved and invested ones.
Following a gradual plan that brings participants closer and closer together can help them feel comfortable revealing emotional needs and build ideas together. This is a simple process that begins by using tasks that encourage participants to first read what the others have said, such as the Agree and Disagree tasks and the Idea Share tasks, and community building exercises such as the Advice Share tasks. Then sharing and growing upon each other’s ideas, such as the Build and Grow and Figure it Out Together tasks.
The end goal is to have participants commenting on each other’s posts even when they are not even being asked to do so. That’s when you know you have achieved a great online community, one that can deliver all the emotional insight and collaborative idea building of a face-to-face group.