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Do research communities provide a new way to engage with customers for research – or are they just panels on steroids?

Communities do seem to be generating a buzz this year. I’m speaking at the Research Conference’s Online Research Conference in London – on technology of course. I’ve put my slides into our downloads area. Several of the speakers talk about communities – particularly the clientside presenters. There is a discussion about whether communities should have an incentive or not, and surprisingly, many of the client-run communities run very effectively with no incentive, and indeed some practitioners were of the view that an incentive altered the dynamic and effectively missed the point of building a community.

It revealed that there is a divide in practice emerging between those developing and using communities. I fear that for some, the community is merely conceived as being a kind of ‘panel plus’, where a bit more feedback is provided, a bit more branding is built in, a bit more effort is put into keeping people happy (no bad thing in itself), but the relationship is still fundamentally of the researcher and/or client wishing to control the process. In this context, it is understandable that incentives are necessary, because to the respondent, the experience differs little from the best practice of some of the really reputable and more respondent-centric panel companies.

Communities, on the other hand, are subversive of the research process. It is clear that several firms attempting to implement a community struggle with the control that they have to cede to the participants in order to make it work. If people are going to be encouraged to speak freely, and exchange ideas with one another, with blogs and forums and the like, the corporate message-control wonks often get restless, and many an initiative has probably been crushed by the fear of what could come out in a public or semi-public arena. Yet those who do go the full mile with their communities and allow members to set the discussion agenda too seem to come away with surprisingly positive experiences.

Both speakers at the conference and practitioners I’ve chatted with seem to agree that negative opinion is always in the minority across the board as a whole, and when it does arise, other voices will often defend or moderate the company, or sing its praises elsewhere – in ways that have the credibility of the Web 2.0 milieu which is in inverse proportion to anything that a PR department could produce.

Yet I have heard others describe communities as ‘glorified panels’, and that I find worrying. True, they do share some characteristics, and indeed, the underlying technology used for panels can sometimes be tweaked to run a community too. It is important that we, as an industry and as practitioners are able to distinguish between the two. Perhaps one useful differentiator is whether an incentive is involved or not. However, an incentive would be ethically appropriate if the research activity was particularly time-consuming, such as keeping a daily blog for an extended period.

However, another differentiator, and certainly a challenge to the researcher, is that a community is likely to have a wider remit than just research, and responsibilities may be shared among marketing, product development, PR as well as research – indeed research may be a relatively minor player. This did not surface at the Online Research conference, but Pat Molloy and I mentioned it in our presentation at Casro Tech 09: according to Tribalisation of Business 2008 it is the marketing departments that tend to be running communities, not the MR or insight teams. Building more communities for each fiefdom is hardly going to be the answer – researchers are going to have to find ways to align their goals and methodological approaches with colleagues who have a very different take on communities. It seems that communities demand power-sharing with more than just the participants.