Where online research communities fail

Hugh Carling

Hugh Carling


Co-founder of Liveminds. I love to bring like-minded people together. Whether that's growing businesses, running online communities, staging events or captaining my village cricket team, nothing makes me happier than seeing people with a shared passion, coming together and making the most of it.

In my last post, we looked at the seven compelling reasons why brands should create their own online research community. The benefits of speed, cost and depth of research are certainly very attractive.

However, researchers often tell me that the current reality is that there are also some very big hurdles to get over. These are stopping a lot of brands from creating their own communities, and preventing those that do, from getting real value from them.

The three big problems that clients and agencies have shared with me in conversation are:

1. Complexity of software

Learning how to use a new, unfamiliar and complex community platform takes a lot of time, energy and effort for every user. It is not like being asked to switch word processor or mail application (and that is panful enough!)

There is a lot of time ‘reading the manual,’ getting in touch with support lines, waiting for tickets to be answered. Platforms that claim to do everything but also claim to be ‘easy to use’ are failing to deliver one of those promises.

Critically this isn’t just a problem for researchers, although they perhaps bear the brunt of it – real participants have never used these platforms before either. Nor did they have any desire to learn how to do so. This puts up an immediate and significant barrier to engagement. It is also a barrier that will never go away, because your platform is not, and is never going to be, a Twitter or a Facebook, that they would use out of choice.

2. Cost of software

The cost of the arms race between competitive platform providers to add ‘amazing new functionality’ is always going to be passed on to the business buyer.

Continually adding extra analytical tools, to differentiate the platform from the next one in a sales pitch, whilst also trying desperately to keep pace with the social experience offered by Facebook et al, is an extremely expensive (and ultimately futile) exercise. This leaves us with the current state of play, where buyers are paying tens of thousands of pounds a year for platforms that are neither truly integrated with participants social lives or enjoyable for researchers to use.

3. Cost of consultancy

The high cost of current research communities doesn’t stop at the software though. There is also a significant consultancy cost. You will need to keep coming up with very persuasive reasons to convince participants to interrupt their daily online existence on Facebook, Twitter, Spotify etc. to come and talk about Your Brand in a dislocated, alien environment.

Creating that volume of remarkable content isn’t easy and it’s not cheap. It will require significant buy-in from your creative team and content producers. Managing that relationship is complex- creating new ideas or reformatting content specifically for your platform, will always be far lower down their list, than content for the main social media channels.

So, sadly, despite the many benefits, the truth of the current crop of research/ insight communities is far less clear cut. High cost, complex software and faltering engagement is undermining the huge potential of this method. And keeping it out of the budget of many of the brands who need it most.

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