By Schumaila Kumar
With the reduction of in-person research techniques in the COVID-19 environment, online research took center stage. Through my work at Phase 5, we have been leveraging online tools and methodologies with deep experience to help clients maximize results. Read on to learn more about best practices for managing online research communities in improving participant engagement and data quality.
What is an online research community?
Online research communities – sometimes called online bulletin boards – are private online groups in which participants complete activities, engage in interactive discussions with other participants and respond to moderator comments. They tend to be structured around a specific topic, have a set duration (a period of days or weeks), are asynchronous (i.e. members do not participate in real-time, but can login periodically to provide their feedback), and are usually qualitative in nature, but can include simple quantitative components (e.g. quick polls, ranking exercises, grid questions).
When to use an online research community?
Online research communities can be used to help with a wide range of business issues that require qualitative research, such as: product and service development, communications and creative testing, ideation, customer journey mapping, pilot testing, self-ethnography, voice of the customer, and employee engagement.
Online research communities have always been an effective, convenient and cost-beneficial research approach for gathering balanced, thoughtful and in-depth feedback from geographically dispersed and sometimes ‘hard to reach’ audiences. The COVID-19 pandemic has only emphasized the benefits and usefulness of online research communities when in-person research is not feasible.
Let’s say you’ve just recruited 30 participants for a 2-week moderated online community and are ready, set to go with your research questions – but two weeks is a long time and it’s easy for participants to lose interest, fall behind or drop off. So, how do you ensure your research participants are engaged? Here are some best practices you might find helpful:
- Communicate expectations upfront. Explain to participants how frequently they are expected to log in and contribute and what the overall expected time commitment is. We typically tell participants that they have to log in daily and respond to all questions in order to be eligible for the incentive (e.g., expected daily time commitment of 20 minutes). This sets the right expectations and avoids any confusion.
- Build rapport. Moderators should use their picture and provide a brief introduction on themselves (e.g. what they do, where they live, interests, hobbies, etc.) and encourage participants to do the same, as this helps to build a connection and creates a more personal environment.
- Follow-up regularly and in a timely fashion. This shows participants that someone is listening and that their feedback is being valued. And of course, it’s always a good idea to acknowledge insightful comments (e.g., “that’s an interesting point you make”) as this makes participants feel appreciated.
- Nudge laggards. There will always be a few who fall behind – it’s best to send them a quick private reminder email, which often helps to get them ‘back on track’.
- Set-up automatic notifications to alert participants of new topics or to remind them that they haven’t completed specific activities.
- Use activities. Tasks such as photo or video sharing, card-sorting, polls, image mark-up, etc. will keep respondents engaged and help break up the monotony of open-ended questions.
- Build in group discussions. While a 1-to-1 approach is great to get unbiased and rich feedback, try to build in a group discussion component. This provides a more interactive experience – everyone likes to know what their peers or others have to say. Group discussions can also be effective tools for idea sharing and brainstorming.
- Limit the number of questions/respect time limits. We suggest about 5-7 questions per day, as long lists of questions or tasks can seem overwhelming and decrease interest. Instead, use probes or follow-ups to expand on questions.
- Structure each day around a topic. Having various unrelated questions can be confusing. Grouping questions based on a theme will make the discussion more focused and ensure well thought-out feedback.
- Offer bonus incentives. We typically offer an additional incentive to the top three contributors. This helps encourage active participation and insightful comments. Be sure to let participants know about this at the beginning.
Incorporating these practices will ensure you have a more engaged research audience. You can also refer to the CRIC-ICC-ESOMAR Code of Conduct to learn more about essential standards of ethical and professional conduct designed to maintain public confidence in research (including online research).
About the Author:
Schumaila Kumar is an Associate Vice President in Phase 5’s Innovation and Product Development practice. She is a seasoned quantitative and qualitative research professional who is adept at ‘bringing out the story’ behind the data, illuminating research findings and delivering key insights that inform client decisions. Schumaila speaks four languages, holds a Master’s Degree in Communications from Wayne State University, MI, USA and a Master’s Degree in Interpretation from Innsbruck University, Austria. She can be contacted at [email protected].