4 Principles of Successful Online Communities

online communities

Online communities have proven to be a convenient source for collecting in-depth feedback from customers and prospects alike.  What was once an emerging marketing research trend, use of online communities as a research tool has now become mainstream. In fact, the latest GRIT report shows that 60% of companies surveyed use an online community to gather consumer feedback and another 22% are considering it. If your company is thinking about starting one, consider the following four principles as you determine if an online community is right for your company and what role it will play within your overall marketing research program.

1. Purpose-Driven Online Communities Empower Consumers

It’s no surprise why online communities have become increasingly popular in recent years. They meet brand marketers’ needs for quick access to cost-effective consumer feedback. However, the longer-term benefits go well beyond timing and cost savings. For instance, members tend to share richer, more in-depth responses compared to open-ended feedback from stand-alone surveys. Plus, with a built-in expectation for ongoing interaction, members are not only willing, but actively seeking future opportunities to share their experiences with brands. This makes it possible to conduct iterative research with ongoing exchanges. Brand marketers can follow-up with members on their responses to previous research to better understand what’s driving their perceptions and the motivations behind their actions.

These types of exchanges give members a sense of empowerment and purpose to their involvement. Before launching an online community, consider clearly defining its purpose for your members. By doing so, you set the tone for their experience and communicate the true value of their participation.

2. Members Expect Regular Interaction

Online communities thrive on regular interaction with members. To keep your community members engaged over time, your organization must have an ongoing need for consumer feedback. Thinking about your future marketing research needs, ask yourself these questions to make sure you will have a steady volume of topic areas to maintain conversation with members over time.

  • Does your organization have a long-term commitment to new product development?
  • Do you launch multiple advertising campaigns over the course of a year?
  • Do you have a multi-channel marketing communications strategy?
  • Does your brand rely on regularly updated promotional offers?
  • Do you have ongoing tracking studies that reveal moments of customer delight as well as pain points, but not the underlying causes?

The most successful online communities rely on their members to provide ongoing feedback across a wide variety of topic areas. As relationships develop with members, brand marketers enhance their understanding of key moments across the entire customer journey. Even interactions between online community members themselves can be quite revealing and provide insight into their emotional state throughout their customer experiences. However, if too much time passes without communication with members, they will begin to feel less engaged and become less likely to participate in surveys and discussions. That’s why successful online communities need a full pipeline of marketing research initiatives, appropriate for this evolving methodology, to maintain their effectiveness.

3. Member Relationships Need Nurturing

Participation in an online community creates an ongoing relationship between members and brand stakeholders. Like any relationship, steps need to be taken to nurture trust and respect. Here are a few tactics to include when setting up your community:

  • Solicit formal feedback on the member experience on a regular basis
  • Give members an easy way to share unprompted feedback
  • Respond to member concerns promptly
  • Share results of studies with members to show how they are co-creating your brand’s future

4. Online Communities Require Balancing CX vs. Marketing Research Needs

Given the importance of focusing on the customer experience aspect of online communities, there may be a tendency to spend less time addressing issues surrounding data quality and other marketing research-specific needs. Ensuring a good representation of your target audience in your online community is a common concern. Another issue to be aware of is the potential for members’ feedback to become biased over time, as they increase their participation in the community. Here are some strategies to assess the representative nature of your members’ feedback:

  • Monitor the demographic profile of your community members
    • Compare to previous research studies as well as outside sources (i.e., internal tracking studies, U.S. Census data)
  • Conduct periodic parallel studies among general target audiences to confirm comparability of data
  • Track member participation to be sure you are collecting feedback from a good cross-section of members
  • Design online community surveys and interactions with the audience in mind
    • Be mindful that online communities have limitations
    • Use an outside respondent sample for studies that need to be conducted blinded (without revealing the research sponsor) such as measuring brand or advertising effectiveness

Online communities tap into consumers’ desire to engage with brands, have their voices heard, and see how their opinions can help shape a brand’s future. However, companies need to pay special attention to the ways members’ experiences can potentially impact the nature of their feedback over time. In the end, creating and maintaining a successful online community requires striking a balance between delivering a rewarding experience to members and ensuring the feedback gathered continues to be a reliable source of consumer intelligence.

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