The penetration rate, and consideration level, of online insight communities is at an all-time high. Greenbook places the number of researchers using online communities at 59%, with another 23% considering one. That means a lot of companies are making hard decisions on which companies to work with as their provider. And with community platforms rapidly evolving, companies that already have communities are kicking tires to make sure they have the best partner available.
So market researchers, and in some cases marketers, are tasked with making the most informed decision possible for their organization. Obviously, the criteria and weighting of that criteria will vary to some degree based on the company, their industry, and the company’s objectives and challenges.
Based on interactions with prospective and current clients, and more than seven years of experience with operating communities, I’ve put together some of the most important issues when deciding on a community provider. Let’s assume that the company is looking for a full service online community provider. Let’s further assume the overarching purpose is to secure actionable insights for the purpose of better and faster decision making within the organization.
From a big picture perspective, the criteria can be broken into four components:
- Platform capability
- Research team capability
- Service approach
Community platform capability
At first glance one might view the platform, or software, as just a tool. In the case of online communities, the platform is of critical importance for several reasons.
First, the platform is one of the critical enablers from a capability point of view. There are great differences between the capabilities of various platforms. Some platforms don’t have their own activity or survey engine. This can limit the range of activities types that can be executed, as well as the flexibility to handle issues out of the norm.
A second reason is efficiency. There is a reason that traditional research can be extremely slow. Creating charts, executing analysis, report templates, recapping the results, running statistics are all things that take time. If the platform can do the routine automatically, it provides the researchers with more time to focus on delivering implications and recommendations. And of equal importance, this automation allows the provider to provide critical customer insights incredibly fast.
Community research team capability
While the platform is the enabler, the people responsible for the research are equally important if not more so. Community work requires a special kind of researcher. As the scope of communities has changed due to their success and capabilities, so has the type of researcher who thrives in this environment. When entering the industry, I saw two types – the pure account executive and the qualitative researcher. The truth of the matter is that a good Community Manager needs to have a wide range of skills: qualitative research, quantitative research, project management, moderation/administration, project management, account management, intellectual curiosity, story-telling, etc. These skills help the research team better understand the voice of customer (VOC) which is valuable when coding open ended responses, summarizing the data, and gleaning insights from reports. To that end it is important that the individual has actual community management experience versus just one aspect of traditional research.
This is probably the biggest opportunity to see differentiation among providers, but also one of the hardest to predict. How will the community provider react to the inevitable change in objectives, scope, and priorities? A good provider should have somewhat of a formula or set of best practices. However, the real rub comes when something changes or is previously undefined. Some typical kinds of changes include:
- Community composition: ‘we thought we just wanted to understand our current customers, but now we feel we need to understand customer buying from other brands.’
- Community segment weighting: ‘originally we wanted our community to proportionally represent brand ownership, and now we want a larger number of millennials.’
- Content: ‘the concept work we are looking to run isn’t ready because of product development delays, what else can we run?’
- Volume: ‘I know the contract indicates 2 activities per month, but I believe we are going to need to run about 3 per month for the remainder of the year. Is that a problem?’
- Deadlines: ‘we know it is late notice but our sales team is going into Target on Friday and we would like to have some customer feedback we can share with the buying team. Is there any way we could post the study today and have results within the next 72 hours?’
If any of these scenarios resonate with you, then it is important to understand the service approach of your prospective insight community provider. RFPs seek to be as all-encompassing as possible, but it is near impossible to cover every aspect of community work as well as evolving needs. One way to suss out a company’s service is to go through some of these scenarios with the providers to get a sense for how they would respond. Having an agile community partner can be incredibly important, and not just for the scenarios listed above, but also in terms of platform, or technology, changes and improvements. A good partner with a proprietary platform can also deliver improvements that are of particular importance to a given client.
Certain cost components of a community will likely be similar across all providers. These include recruitment and member incentives. The real differences usually occur with the monthly professional services charges. This is an area in which the platform becomes important again. If the provider has a high degree of automation and integration with the platform – they are able to execute the research much more efficiently. Other differences can come from the company’s business model. If for example the provider is part of a consulting firm or an agency they might be operating on a time or hours model. Some companies may not like the feel of a meter running with every new project, likewise it can cause uncomfortable negotiations throughout the course of the year as priorities change. Another company may view themselves more as a software company, and look at the service aspect independently. These may provide some of the reasons for why the costs are different, but the numbers should speak for themselves. Beyond the numbers again it is important to understand what happens if something changes with the scope of the project.
Obviously, there is much to consider when choosing an insight community provider. Big picture, a company wants a provider who does the best job of producing actionable insights that help shape decision making within the company. And they want that at a cost that fits their budget and delivers a great return on that investment. Probing into the platform, team, service approach, and cost structure specifics will help to yield a better result in selecting your community partner.
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