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.
[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:
- 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
- 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:
- 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?
- Perceptions and belief: projectives that help to expose the underlying emotional and rational characteristics that are driving decisions
- 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]
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.