There are a number of key benefits that make online community research an attractive methodology:
- It allows ‘asynchronous communication’; respondents can take part in online discussions at their own convenience, eliminating time-zones and allowing respondents to feel more in control of the process
- We are able to reach a wide geographical spread without incurring travel costs
- Online platforms provide a comfortable setting to discuss sensitive or stigmatised topics that respondents may feel reluctant talking about in a face-to-face setting
- We are able to reach a younger demographic; teenagers are more likely to engage in an online community than they are in a ‘live’ focus group discussion
- As we can run online communities for a longer period of time than other methods of research, we are able to develop deeper insights and react to any changing objectives of the research.
Despite the clear advantages of using an online community, there are some inherent challenges:
Firstly, achieving ‘theoretical saturation’ or satisfaction with the data can be tricky, especially if some respondents have provided nonsensical answers (for example, the use of colloquial abbreviations and ‘smileys’ can make it difficult to interpret meaning). We are able to probe said respondent for clarification; however, it may be some time before a response is received. If respondents have completed the post as required to receive their incentive, they are also under no obligation to provide additional information, which could leave the probe unanswered and the response unclear.
Secondly, we need to think creatively about how we can keep respondents engaged, especially if we are running the community for a long period of time. It is important to keep topics interesting and ensure we acknowledge respondents answers; knowing your voice is being heard can make a huge difference to engagement (as we found in our project). It is important to incentivise in a way that encourages continued engagement. Paying the full incentive upfront or at the end (if a long community) is unlikely to motivate respondents to log onto the community on a regular basis. I’ve found that payment at fixed time-points throughout the fieldwork period yields good participation; receiving rewards for time invested in the online discussion on a consistent basis can spur respondents on to continue with the aim of receiving the next reward.
The third challenge is that online research doesn’t provide any non-verbal clues or emotional reactions which can be valuable for some types of research. If, for example, your objective is to measure reactions to creative concepts or marketing campaigns, another method might work better. Ask yourself - would the project benefit from an online community? It may be tempting to try and fit the research to the method in order to be innovative; however, if the research objectives are not best served by an online community then it is best to consider another approach.
One lesson I have learnt over the course of my project is that the key to success is planning. It is vital to address potential challenges at the set-up phase; how are you going to incentivise respondents? How are you going to manage unintelligible responses? How are you going to keep respondents interested and engaged? What roles will each member in your team have (i.e. who will moderate, analyse, etc.)? It is worth considering scripting your online community, so you have a good idea from the outset what you are going to be asking respondents and at what time-points; we have found this invaluable when it comes to planning our time. If you are conducting research in several markets, you need to think about language - will you stick to English or tailor each online community to reflect the native language?
Hopefully, this blog has offered some useful tips for conducting online community research. In a world where technology and everyday life are becoming ever more entwined, online communities can be very advantageous – no last minute cancellations at interview to worry about, the ability to reach a wide geographical spread of respondents. Although there are challenges (as with all research), establishing the right foundations at the start can lead to a fruitful and stimulating research project.