This article is part of a series by Katie Harris, principal at Zebra Connections (if you missed the other parts, start here). 

Insights with focus and bite

Here’s a conversation we once had with a potential client:

Potential client: “We need insights!”
“Tell us more…” (spot the qualitative researchers).
Potential client, in a louder voice:
“We need insights!”
“We can give you a thousand insights”
Potential client, now smiling broadly and almost dancing with delight:
“What are you going to do with them?”
Potential client, somewhat soberly:

There’s a happy ending: the potential client became an actual client and over time, we gleaned the specific insights they needed in a practical sense. Insights with focus and bite.

I tell this story because it highlights one of the issues I have with online communities for harnessing qualitative insights (they’re all the rage, you know; both communities and insights that is).

My issue is around efficiency. Are online communities the most efficient way to get insights with focus and bite?

Of course, the answer is: it depends! But for the most part, probably not.

Online communities

Broadly speaking, and within the context of gathering qualitative insights, online communities fall into two categories of interest:

1. Existing communities: virtual spaces where people with shared interests have gathered.

2. Manufactured communities: virtual spaces where people who have been paid, or given some other incentive to offer their opinion come together.

Are online communities, as described above, the goldmines for insight they’re being sold as?

Here are my thoughts:

Existing communities

These are communities that have naturally evolved to address member based interests and needs. Sport, parenting, cooking, fashion, music and social media, etc. – all have online communities that congregate in various virtual spaces across social-media land (e.g. MSN or Yahoo groups, Facebook, blogs etc.).

Theoretically at least, existing communities are a great resource for qualitative researchers. ‘Real’ conversations that often happen in relatively real time, minus any research effect. Insight heaven!

But what about in practice? Three key issues come to mind:

1. Sample: my old favourite, sample. Who are the community members? Do they represent the target market? There’s no way of telling.

2. Access: many existing communities, and possibly the most interesting ones, are private; unsearchable for a start, but also, locked behind membership and passwords. If you can’t see them or hear them, it’s going to be difficult to glean any insights!

3. Professional ethics: without the context of the market research ‘deal’, where critically, research participants are aware of, understand, and agree to participate in the research process, how should one proceed? Should the researcher disclose their market research agenda? Is it unethical not to do so?

Manufactured communities

These ‘communities’ are purpose built environments; virtual spaces where people who have been paid, or given some other incentive to offer their opinion, come together.

Here are my questions about manufactured communities;

  • What’s the cost of manufacturing, hosting, nurturing, monitoring and maintaining them to gather qualitative insights?
  • Are manufactured communities simply a large scale, high cost, low return version of an online bulletin board focus group?
  • Where does analysis begin? Where does it end? What kind of questions are you trying to answer anyway?

You want insights? I can give you a thousand insights.