The future of communities is all about secure long-term communities, of ever larger size, linked to other data flows, enabling agile processes and the democratizing of insights, built on trust between organisations and their customers/users.
Communities have become the most widely adopted new research technique of the last 20 years, going from innovative idea to mainstream research tool in record time. Over the next decade, I believe they will become the single most important resource in facilitating the change that is happening in insights – the shift from ‘market research’ to iterative conversations with customers. This post (and the next few in this series) sets out where insight communities are going over the next ten years, and the steps you need to take if you want to maximise the benefits.
How we got here
Communities emerged about 20 years ago, with innovators such as Diane Hessan of Communispace and Andrew Reid of Vision Critical leading the way (closely followed in Europe by Peter Comley and myself at Virtual Surveys, and in Australia by Peter Harris at Colmar Brunton). In 2010, Wiley published my book The Handbook of Online and Social Media Research, which devoted a whole chapter to highlighting the best practices and widespread adoption of communities. Back then, the focus included both short-term and long-term communities, as well as small and large communities. In 2013, the GRIT Report had identified that communities were already the most mainstream of the emerging research techniques.
By 2013 the basic choices for communities had become clear. The first dimension was whether they were short-term or long-term (i.e. weeks or years). The second dimension was whether they comprised few members or thousands (in essence, were they focused on qualitative research, or were they based mostly on surveys, with some qual).
Here is a chart I presented in 2013, showing this as a simple image.
From the archives - ESOMAR Asia Pacific Conference, 2013
Over the last ten years, communities have matured and become almost ubiquitous, with most agencies offering them and most clients having at least one (and many having multiple communities). The intervening years have seen additional platforms and the rise of tools such as digital qual being used, alongside more traditional community approaches.
Focus on Large-Scale Communities
Over the next ten years, the key focus for communities will be long-term, ever larger communities, used by the whole organisation to enable ongoing collaboration between organisations and customers.
Whilst short-term (or pop-up) communities are valuable research tools, they are simply one ad hoc option in the toolbox of insights. A community that lasts - days, weeks, or even months - will often be the most appropriate way to gather insights related to a specific project or decision. A short-term community competes for efficacy and budget against other ad hoc approaches such as focus groups, diaries, surveys or ethnography. Using a short-term community does not require the organisation to reassess its relationship with its customers – it is simply a research tool.
A long-term community, particularly one of scale, is as much a philosophy as an insights tool. The community of now, and for the next ten years, is a commitment to four key principles:
1. Customer-centricity – putting the customer at the centre of the organisation and co-creating the future. Most traditional research is cross-sectional; each project is carried out with a different sample of people, and the results are averages. To understand how the relationship between you and your customer develops, you need longitudinal data; information from the same customers over time.
2. Agile – if you want insights to move at the speed of your business, you need the right insight methods to be in place. You can’t be agile while finding fresh sample, writing surveys from scratch and deciding which qual tools to use. Building an agile solution is like building with Lego – you have many bricks and shapes, you have unlimited possibilities, but you know they all lock together in predictable and well-practised ways.
3. Democratised – in modern organisations, we want to empower the whole organisation to embrace insights, to adopt evidence-based decision making. But this expanded team of insights-hungry colleagues do not have the time (and maybe not the inclination) to become insight professionals. The solution that works for many organisations is to create insight approaches, based on their community. Communities can facilitate the safe and effective democratisation of insights throughout the organisation.
4. Human centricity – at Potentiate, we believe that the next ten years will focus on understanding people as people, rather than simply thinking of them as customers, or viewers or voters. To understand people, you need to combine the length of longitudinal with the breadth of insights that go wider than your own range of products and services. To be longer and wider, you need a community, people who are on a journey with you to iteratively build a brand that meets their needs, and which engenders loyalty.
If you are not planning to put communities at the heart of your relationship with people, you are likely to fail your customers and hamper your agile teams. Most learning in the future will be iterative, based on approaches such as build-measure-learn, and the best way to democratize that in your organization is through the centrality of communities.
Contact us today for a demo of HX Communities.