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As qualitative researchers we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can get the most out of our online communities. But of course these are not the only people we need to be connecting with. Client engagement is just as important, if we want research to truly have an impact. Yet it’s something the research industry doesn’t talk about quite so frequently.

In this blog post we want to change that, and share with you how we’re working to create social communities where both client and consumer are equal participants. Even better, by using online we can work in a way that takes the global economy into account, taking a worldwide view while maintaining a local focus alongside.

We were working with a major global FMCG company to come up with fresh new ideas for products that would really appeal to a global teenage audience. And to do this, they needed to learn about teenagers’ lives and work with them to create products they would truly want.

Sharing music, Roman Stylke - Ed Yourdon

[Photo by Ed Yourdon]

So we set up an online community hub, working with teens across the globe from the US and UK, but also three of the four big emerging BRIC markets.

What did we do differently?

We created ‘buddy teams’, a client paired with a teenager, both within a small intimate community of other buddy teams. We then created a range of activities designed to kickstart the process and encourage our teens to open up around their lifestyles. How did this work? Our client buddies could:

  1. Comment on people’s blog and forum posts, e.g. sharing their own experiences and building rapport, as well as probing for more information about their lives or brand preferences
  2. Participate in real-time live chats, bringing people together in a relaxed, conversational format to bounce ideas directly off each other and co-create new product ideas

We made this flow smoothly through features of Pulsar Engage, our community platform, which includes a notification system to ensure participants know when they’ve been left comments to answer.

Why should clients do this research?

Consumer connect programs are nothing new, but running them online has significant advantages – including the opportunity to involve stakeholders from around the world. In fact, it allows you to build your stakeholders’ global viewpoint, by buddying them with participants from a different market to their home. Most importantly, running the research online means that clients can interact when they have time, even using smartphones to access the community on the go.

In fact, because the varying markets can be run simultaneously, it’s also faster – and arguably cheaper compared to conventional customer connection programs given there are no travel costs or venue hire.

It’s also flexible, you can begin to ask questions around:

  1. Lifestyle: self ethnographic report of behaviours that can trigger ideas around products or services. Learn more about the contexts of the teens’  lives – understanding the big picture the brand needs to fit into. What posters do teens have up on their bedroom walls? Do they care about celebrities? Which ones?
  2. Perceptions and belief: projectives that help to expose the underlying emotional and rational characteristics that are driving decisions
  3. Product development and refinement: Ideate through crowdsourcing and refine in real time using chats

Finally, this approach allows you to have conversations with consumers in a private space. In principle, these connections could be achieved through social media – the natural home for online communication. But what about the ideas you come up with? The company information you share? That needs protection – and within our community, terms and conditions protect that IP.

Photo by Chris Chan, crazytales562 on Flickr

[Photo by Chris Chan]

Advantages for consumers

We’d also argue that it’s a better experience for consumers. Normally in an online community they will know that clients will be listening in – but they never actually see them. People participating in communities are genuinely interested in the brands they’re working with – they want to feel they’re having an impact and helping shape the products. In a recent project our participants become so intrigued that we had to answer a raft of emails asking to be kept up to date with what would be happening to the ideas generated.

We also think it has a lot of advantages as a safe, non-intrusive way to work with teenagers.  Privacy is just as important to them as to our clients’ confidential ideas. Teens may share things on Facebook that may be appropriate for their friends, but not for adults & researchers to see. But in an online research community, they’re in control of what information they share with this known audience – making it a safer channel.

What’s in it for us as a research agency?

For starters let’s crush a myth: the “buddy system” isn’t  less work for the research agency! Even while client stakeholders may be much more active, asking probing questions and building ideas, it takes a lot of coordination to make it go smoothly. The challenge for us as a research agency is that it’s like having two sets of participants to keep engaged. Not only do we have to keep the teenagers motivated, and coming back for the next task – but we’ve also got to keep our clients in the game.

We’ll also be honest, sometimes a buddy team won’t work out, however we have precautions in place for this, including spare buddies (both client and consumer side). We’re also experimenting with other social systems, including more fluid approaches without rigid buddy teams.

On a pure research level we gain richer information ourselves as we get to see both angles, client as well as consumer needs. So our insights and product ideas better solve our clients’ problems.

And of course, clients are allowed to participate directly, ask the questions they want, and hopefully have a sense of greater personal involvement in the project. This should mean that (a) insights stick better, and (b) buy-in to the actual product innovation ideas is better.


Social media has accelerated a globalisation of culture, what we might call “brands without borders”. What influences how a teenager perceives a brand is not necessarily led by the brand themselves – their adverts and their media spend. Instead an Indonesian teen may be following American celebrities on Instagram and video bloggers from Singapore to Sao Paulo.

But while there’s more cultural intermingling, this isn’t the same thing as erasure of difference. People’s tastes still differ – Americans like their soft drinks sweeter, or Italians like their vanilla ice-cream yellower.

So we need research that’s both global and local. Great, but it’s still a challenge to build globally-relevant products in a time- and cost-efficient way.

Online qual is no longer a young research method, but it still feels like we’re just getting started.


Thanks to Piers Leonard, Oana Stroie and Jess Owens for feeding into this blog post.

For more Riki, say hello on Twitter to @Riki_Neill, or connect on LinkedIn.

Face’s Chief Innovation Officer, Francesco D’Orazio, will be speaking at several conferences over the next couple of weeks – starting today! In the next month he’s sharing our latest thinking at the 4 events below. We hope to see some of you there.

Thursday 31st October, Francesco is in Rotterdam to speak at the ESOMAR Next conference for students, giving them insight into the world of market research. He’ll be explaining how we interpret social media data, and hopefully inspiring some young people to launch their careers in our industry!

Monday 4th November, Francesco will be taking part in the Researching Social Media conference in Sheffield at The Workstation. While the conference is already sold out, you can either join the waiting list or follow the discussion on Twitter at #rsmconf13. The event is unusual for bringing together academic and commercial research, so we’re sure it’ll be a fascinating discussion.

Thursday 7th November, our intrepid CIO is back in London where you can catch him at the World Travel Market event where he’ll be sharing some of our work on how videos go viral.

StrataConf LogoTuesday 12th November, Francesco will be representing FACE at Strata London, produced by O’Reilly. Held in London, Strata is a world-leading big data and data science conference, exploring the newest data tools and analysis techniques to prepare for a data-driven future.

With programming tracks covering ethics and open data to business and technology, this event should definitely be on your watch list. Keynote speakers include Kaitlin Thaney, Director of the Mozilla Science Lab and James Burke, a historian and futurist dubbed “One of the most intriguing minds in the Western world” by the Washington Post.

Francesco will be gathering up insights from our How Stuff Spreads research series, sharing what we learned after looking at memes like Gangnam Style and viral videos like the Dove Real Beauty Sketches advert. Is it possible to identify patterns and correlations between the type of media content and the way it travels the social web?

If you can’t make it to London on the 12th, follow the official conference Twitter account @strataconf and hashtag #strataconf.


Keep track of Francesco through his travels by following him on Twitter (@abc3d), connecting with him on LinkedIn, or following him on Tumblr.

If you can’t make these conferences, you can view our recent Viral Video Webinar, below, where Francesco and Jess Owens, Social Media Research Manager in our London team, explain how 4 very different videos went viral very differently.

FACE Webinar – How Videos Go Viral from Face Group on Vimeo.

Last week we held the third webinar in our How Stuff Spreads webinar series. Francesco D’Orazio, our Chief Innovation Officer, and Jess Owens, Social Media Research Manager in our London office, took the audience through a recent study we did with Twitter mapping how 4 very different videos went viral.

  • a series on Vine called “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal”
  • astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while orbiting Earth aboard the International Space Station
  • Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches marketing campaign
  • a video documenting the protests in Turkey to contest the urban development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park.

By looking at the sharing patterns of these videos, Francesco and Jess were able to provide advice for social media marketers in how to get their content to go further, faster.

View the webinar recording below.

FACE Webinar – How Videos Go Viral from Face Group on Vimeo.


Keep up to date with our latest thinking about by signing up to our mailing list here. We send out a newsletter once a month with company news, thoughts, and industry insights.


FACERS are travelling the world this week, with teams from both London and Hong Kong converging on Singapore for some exciting co-creation work. So over to our Head of Singapore Serena Jacob for an update – and an introduction for the newest member of the FACE family, Calin Chua!

Says Serena:Serena Jacob FACE Singapore

“The Singapore office of FACE has had a busy three months plus since it opened in July this year.  Working closely with the Hong Kong office, we’ve had a steady flow of projects – different objectives, different markets, different FACE methodologies – we couldn’t have had a more interesting start!

With so many client companies having their regional headquarters here, we’ve been spreading the good word, and have had a fantastic response.  Several Unilever teams across a variety of categories have been really interested to learn about the FACE approach, and have been enterprising enough to try some of these approaches to answer different marketing problems. The interest in co-creation has been huge…

…Which makes it the perfect time to grow the team, and we’re delighted to welcome Calin to FACE Singapore. Calin comes to us from Flamingo, having spent time in both the Singapore and Shanghai offices, and impressed us from our very first meeting with her charm and spunk, as well as passion for and ability in qual research. Her gorgeous necklace collection also helped! She’s going to be a great addition to FACE Asia.”

Calin Chua, researcher at FACE Asia

A little bit about myself…

I am an amateur guitarist, a Jamie Oliver wannabe, an aspiring Chinese tea connoisseur and an eclectic leggings collector.

My role at FACE…

I am joining FACE as a Research Manager. I will be working closely with Serena in the Singapore office and Andrew, Daniel and Nicole in the Hong Kong office. I am excited to work and meet my colleagues in the UK and US offices!

Why did I join FACE?

Firstly, I am drawn by FACE’s approach on research, particularly its unique and clear approach on co-creation. As a researcher, I strongly believe in building and telling a story with insights, and I believe co-creation is the new and exciting way to uncover the insights.

Secondly, I grew up experiencing and (am still experiencing) the changes in how people communicate with people, brands and society through the world of social media. I am personally intrigued by the multiple identities that people moth into when they are on different social media platforms. I love to see how our digital approaches can unveil the behaviour and translate them into meaningful stories for our clients.


Say hello to Calin on LinkedIn here, or meet Serena Jacob, Head of our Singapore office.

Or sign up for our Asia mailing list here to be kept up with developments in our co-creation methodologies and online community innovations.

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.

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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.