Nine ways to improve your online research communities

Published 29 April 2021 8 minute read

Online qual
Research communities

We asked senior researchers, community moderators and industry experts to give us the benefit of their knowledge and experience of running online communities. Here are nine great tips that will help you improve your research
community activities, so they run even better.

1. Ensure your activities are clear and focused

Its important to make life easy for your researchers and participants. When designing your activities, make sure that each one covers a key research objective and that it uses clear directions. Every task should be easy to understand, with important actions highlighted and listed. This reduces the time it takes for participants to comprehend what they have to, increases their confidence in engaging with the task and makes it easy for you to identify where
your insights are coming.

Think about the order in which you introduce tasks. It’s usual ‘best practice’ for all research, but there is a danger with the extended, often detailed or complex nature of a forum project that you can get tempted to dig deep on prompted areas before all the spontaneous responses have been received/assessed. Whilst the flexibility that an extended forum offers is a wonderful and useful thing, careful planning is still important.

Chris Blythe, The Brand Nursery

Activities need to have visual stimuli, short text that’s easy to understand and be fun. Even if talking about banks or pharmaceutical drugs, we need to guarantee we give the right instructions and not a list of long and tiring and boring questions for participants to answer. Activities need to be engaging. Use multimedia to ask what you need of participants and encourage them to do the same to answer to activities.

Daniela Sene Grandi, On3

2. Use the language your participants are using

This not only helps to ensure that community members are able to understand your activities but will also help you to establish a rapport with them. Avoid using marketing and research terms as these create distance and increase the ‘virtual’ space between you and community members. Ultimately, the time that you spend developing member relationships will lead to stronger levels of commitment and great quality feedback.

 If you made dinner for a friend and they mentioned how delicious it is, would you follow up with “What is the  benefit to you of a delicious dinner?” or “What are the reasons to believe this is delicious?”. Obviously not, right? They would likely look at you as if you were speaking a different language – because you would be!

Showing empathy by mirroring the language and vocabulary of the respondents you’re interacting with is incredibly important. It makes them feel heard, engendering trust and a sense of belonging. Which, in turn, generates deeper, richer, more emotionally-driven insights worth their weight in gold.

Sandi Medeiros, spark what's next

3. Test your activities with a colleague

The best activity guides involve more than one researcher. An extra set of eyes, or more importantly brains, ensures that a varied and creative approach can be written into some tasks, and can help limit the bias that can creep into a guide unannounced. As the title suggests, it also helps test the integrity and time demands of your activities. This is vital, as it means you can align your expectations of participant efforts, with the reality of the task. Participant view
windows, or activity test features, are brilliant ways to do this.

Finally, testing allows you to check that the right stimulus is in the right place, and that potential text errors or instruction mishaps are kept to a minimum.
No researcher is an island. Rely on the safety of your team numbers.

 When asking a colleague to try out the tasks, avoid the temptation to prebrief them on what you are hoping to achieve. Give them the same material the participants will get and see how it pans out.

Ray Poynter, NewMR

4. Use discussions and surveys to your advantage

Try to create your discussion-based activities around single questions or themes and limit the number of prompts to no more than two or three. This keeps things easy for participants. Importantly, using this type of activity allows participants the freedom to answer the topics in their own way, paying attention to the points that matter to them – which can be good and bad! Try and keep things fluid and exploratory.

However, sometimes you just have to have a question answered. Maybe it is a core part of the client’s brief, or it’s a vital part of your report. In these cases, consider using a survey. Participants will have to respond to each question and their answers are all in one place. Surveys and snap polls can also be used for additional prompts – this will make your life so much easier when
it comes to analysis!

Remember, in a community you have much greater access to an individual’s thoughts and, unlike in a focus group, you will receive responses from each
engaged member of that community. 

 It is incredibly important to be thoughtful from the get-go about the question(s) you use to spark a discussion. This helps respondents be more naturally expressive and expansive in their answers, with fewer prompts needed from you. This means they take you in the direction their hearts and minds go, instead of you nudging them in the direction you think they are going. This, in turn, sparks richer discussions between respondents, leading to deeper and more useful insights.

To create questions that facilitate richer discussions and avoid question fatigue, try the following: Be prescriptive in your direction, but not prescriptive in the answer(s) or types of discussions desired. This ensures everyone answers the same question, while still allowing room for individual biases, emotions and experiences to shine through. It also allows for respondents to learn from and engage with one another, letting you see where there is heat around certain subjects/thoughts/emotions/etc.

Sandi Medeiros, spark what's next

5. Always present a human face during proceedings

People respond best to people to people. Simple.

Yet often, whilst rushing to try and deliver on research objectives within crazy deadlines, we have a tendency to forget that the people on the other side of the question are human beings who exist for more than just our insights. Great qual research means taking the time to build relationships and gain people’s trust.

Whilst it can mean extra effort, the pay offs are almost always worth it. The best way to start doing this online is to create the best avatar of yourself possible and encourage others to do the same. Begin by uploading an image of yourself and writing a bio that is both interesting and relevant. Task participants with uploading their own image and, as always, completing that key introductory task with as much detail as possible. Make sure that you respond to every person in that task within 24 hours to demonstrate that there is someone there who is interested and who they can report to. If auto-ethnography forms part of the
agenda, and you want home made footage, share some of your own. You will again demonstrate that you are a real human with real human feelings, whilst also
highlighting expectations of what you desire from participants

 Video is an ideal way to bring your community to life, it’s the closest thing to meeting people face-to-face. Video feedback is very powerful and engaging, it adds another dimension to your community, and if you want to gather video feedback from your community members, it seems only fair that you start the ball rolling with a video of yourself!

This can inject a personal touch and authenticity to the community and it’s easy to do, all you really need is your mobile.

Carl Wong, Living Lens

6. Let participants know why you are asking the question

Being as open and honest as you can will encourage participants to mirror this behaviour in their responses. This links to the concept of reciprocation and
treating members with respect. Be sure to share some basic information about the mission and purpose of your community. Don’t leave your participants ‘hanging’ and close the feedback loop answering any questions that may arise quickly, especially if you’re seeking to sustain engagement over longer time periods.

Engage with participants from the beginning. One of the pieces of advice I was given by the Further team before embarking on my first online community (many years ago…) was to actively moderate using follow-up questions from the first days of the community. Letting participants know you are reading their posts and that you’re interested in their responses does, in my experience, help to get them engaged in the project.

Chris Blythe, The Brand Nursery

Communities are successful when participants are there not only for the incentive but because they are engaged with the theme and the ‘cause’. We always tell them ‘why’ they are participating in the community, ‘why’ we need to have multimedia responses, ‘why’ for everything! Obviously we use a ‘why’ question that won’t create bias in their responses, but will guarantee and improve engagement.

Daniela Sene Grandi, On3

7. Bring your activities to life with pictures and video

Featuring photos and videos will not only make your activities more attractive
and engaging, but also inspire your community members to upload their own
multimedia content.

For a research participant, there is nothing worse than a community filled entirely of text-based questions. It’s unengaging and primes for a poor research experience. Bringing activities to life via video and pictures is crucial to not only capture great behavioural insight, but also to make the experience enjoyable for our community members.

Along with activity instructions, we always like to include a short one-minute video explaining the activity.

Posting a video also encourages community members to post their own, offering up richer, contextual insight. Not only is video content more enjoyable for the community members, it also makes for great viewing
during a client presentation to really bring the research insight to life.

Jarrod Calabria, The Behavioural Architects 

8. Build debate and discussion

An online community sometimes needs to be just that, a community. Encouraging interaction and inter-group bonding can make your project become a destination, rather than a chore. When this happens, you will increase response quality and deliver insights into how responses are influenced by peers or group settings.  However, it takes time to create this atmosphere and you can’t expect to jump
right into an ‘organic’ interactive group.

Build interaction within your initial tasks and encourage people to provide constructive feedback on other’s answers. Making it part of the objective increases the likelihood of completion and allows people to become familiar in speaking with others they haven’t met, sharing their ideas and criticism.

Here are a few ways to spark discussion and build your community:
  • Create a sense of rarity about being part of this group of ‘similar-yet-different people together for just a few days to learn from one another’ in the initial conversation-starter question
  • Reinforce the idea of “learning from each other” in follow-up prompts
    State upfront that you want differences of opinion so no one feels shy to say “nay” while everyone else says “yay”
  • Don’t be afraid to cold call participants who seem less vocal, but try to do so in a group so no one person feels singled out, e.g.. “Jonathan, Pablo & Keech, what do you guys think?”
  • Don’t be afraid to let them know how much their input is valued: “Love this answer!” or “I totally get that – thanks!” can go a long way

“Have you ever walked in to a party full of strangers eyeing each other nervously and you, too, suddenly feel awkward, shy and completely unlike your usually talkative, extroverted self? #awkward.

On the flip side, have you ever walked into a party full of strangers, but a host greeted you and introduced you to others, asking thoughtful or fun questions that started a conversation where you realized several other strangers-turned-people-just-like-you were also world travellers in the midst of planning their next trip to Australia/Botswana/Cambodia and began to swap packing tips and tricks? #amazing. Which party would you rather attend?

Our role as a moderator is to play amazing host and help create a relaxed environment that feels open and non-judgmental so that your respondents actually want to share, emote and participate.

Sandi Medeiros, spark what's next

9. Unleash the inner creativity of participants

Expression with online communities can take many forms. Participants love the fact that they can do it using a combination of pictures, video, text and other means. Encourage this kind of behaviour and you’ll get some great responses and make it more fun.

Creativity is a great way to get community members involved, but it can also be extremely nerve racking for participants to put themselves out there. To ease the apprehension, we use a number of ideation techniques to spark creative thought on our communities. ‘Mashups’ is a great example of an ideation technique where we ask a participant to take two great ideas or products (e.g. drones and pizza delivery) and combine them to spark creative thought (remote drone delivery). The purpose of these activities is not to come up with a final solution – instead we are looking to generate new approaches and ways of thinking about familiar challenges.

Don’t just stop at creative activities, make them social! An Ideastorm is the perfect way to encourage creativity amongst the community. Participants can come up with new creations or designs and then share them for the community to vote up or down. Participants love seeing what others have created and it’s often the perfect platform for sparking new and even more
interesting ideas!

Jarrod Calabria, The Behavioural Architects 

Communities are great for engaging participants. Depending on the project
and theme, if you recruit the right people you’ll derive superb insight.

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