The value of online research

Conventional market research is outdated and offers poor value for money. As an alternative, savvy marketers are turning to online communities to obtain direct answers and a deeper level of insight

Online research communities burst onto the scene a couple of years ago, along with buzzwords and phrases such as ‘ceding control’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘co-creation’.

Research communities are the fastest-growing area of market research, but not because individ­uals and businesses have become evangelical about sharing power. No, the key driver is that research communities are delivering great cost savings, along with great insight.

According to one of our clients, the demand in these recessionary times is for solutions to be ‘outside the box, inside the budget’, and that is exactly what research communities are delivering.

EasyJet customer research manager Sophie Dekkers said the airline’s research community enabled her to conduct more research, into more areas of the business and in a faster timeframe – but within the same budget.

Another client told us that it saved £200,000 in the first six months of using its community. So, why and how are research communities delivering this sort of return on investment?

The three main drivers of community value are:

The proximity of the authentic voice of the customer

As online communities are populated by real customers, their views command the attention of marketers – something that disembodied tables of numbers struggle to emulate. Because marketers can ask follow-up questions and get swift replies, there is no room left to blame the survey or the methodology. If the customers do not like a new idea they say so, in their own words.

The continuity of the learning

Traditional research is a series of one-off research projects, with little joined-up learning for the research provider or the buyer.

The moderators of communities work with their participants and clients five days a week (and in some cases, seven). Just like conversations in the real world, every discussion adds to the total body of knowledge.

We know the history of each member and can interpret their latest responses in terms of what they have told us before. The weekly conversations that take place between the moderators and the marketers breed a fresh depth of knowledge that enhances the value of future questions.

The ability to answer small questions

In the day-to-day life of a brand, major queries are outnumbered by a plethora of small questions, such as: ‘Why do people prefer this to that?’ In most cases, these small questions are not answered, or they are bundled together to make a bigger project, or the question is broadened to justify the cost of a project. Yet, because communities are always on, small questions are asked every week, often more than once a week, as and when they arise, in a way that is effectively free at the point of use.

Changing relationships
In the future, there are three trends that will change the relationship between marketers and researchers.

Conventional quantitative studies will be increasingly seen as unable to provide valuable insight, and as being poor value for money.

Research communities will become the centrepiece of many companies’ insight strategies, answering some questions directly, dictating the needs for some research and tying the various strands together.

Other types of market research will appear over the next few years, leveraging word of mouth, behavioural targeting, mobile technologies and social networks, complementing and, in some cases, replacing traditional research.

For many years, we have allowed ourselves to be too cowed by the phrase ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’. Now we are realising that, in many cases, ‘if you can measure it, then you are looking at the wrong thing’.

Ray Poynter is a director of specialist online-research agency Virtual Surveys. Contact him at

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