by: Matt Rhodes

Some people think that the the internet and qualitative research make unlikely bedfellows. But at FreshNetworks, we think that qualitative methods are set to exploit the way we use the internet, and specifically online communities, to share opinions and information.

The recent explosion in public online communities – MySpace and Facebook being prime examples – has been widely documented with a quarter of all Britons visiting social networking sites. Facebook alone has 25 million users and acquires 100,000 new users per day. Surfing, reading buyer reviews, blogging and so on are no longer just for geeks. Recent research conducted for Google reveals that the average Briton now spends around 164 minutes online every day, compared with 148 minutes watching TV. That is equivalent to 41 days a year surfing the web and more than any other activity after sleeping and walking.

Alongside the mass public communities sit an increasing number of niche networks where members focus on shared opinions or interests: they are communities of like-minded people, rather than people with pre-existing relationships. These people identify themselves primarily by their interests, making online networks a natural step forward in the researcher’s repertoire – and a much-needed one given that many research methodologies we use today date from the 1950s.

Both public and private online communities offer opportunities, but many brands are wary of sharing company information openly. Invitation-only, private online communities centred on a single brand or customer segment may be the solution. These private communities can also engage customer groups or target consumers who might be difficult to reach using traditional off-line methodologies. Consumers enjoy this new, more participative research approach and the interaction with other users re-introduces the social context often missing from other research approaches that conceive of the consumer as an isolated individual.

Brands also benefit from online communities by having them on-hand to answer questions, test hypothoses, and observe. Online technology can adapt to almost any research need, be it showing creative stimulus material, gathering ideas for innovation or simply an instant ‘go/no go’ when you need it. The continuity built through online networks brings new possibilities for supporting ideation processes. With a group of people on board, research can keep pace with internal development processes, providing a consumer feedback loop to check new ideas, such as product development, from inception to launch.

Ultimately, however, it is up to the company on whose behalf the private online research community is set up to reassure consumers that they are genuinely interested in hearing customers’ views and closing the feedback loop. As ever, the first rule of engagement is to do it for the right reason, which means listening to the result. If this principle is embraced, and the qualitative research framework understood, then online customer communities not only deliver different and deeper insights than were previously possible, but actually provide clients with the opportunity to enhance loyalty and promote a positive disposition to their brand.

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