Insight communities have seen tremendous growth and enjoy a very high penetration rate within the market research world. In fact, a Q3/Q4 Greenbook Study shows that 59% of companies have insight communities, with another 23% considering adding one. So, while there are a significant number of companies making their first community decision, there are certainly many of the 59% who continue to evaluate what is available to make sure they have the best solution possible.
We’ve covered the bigger picture issues to look for in our previous article How to Choose an Online Insight Community Provider. This article takes it a step further by providing specific questions for companies to ask prospective insight community providers in order to find the provider that best fits their organization.
1. Is your community platform your own, or do you license or use open source tools?
Often, traditional research firms try to move into the insight community segment of research by deploying another company’s software as a solution application or an open source platform. This is not necessarily an issue if the provider is using one of the more advanced software platforms, but this isn’t always the case. Companies that don't have their own insight community platform may find it difficult to execute more complicated activities in a timely manner. Examples could include advanced survey logic, randomization, proper display of concept images, or missing advanced tools such as hot spots and heat mapping. In addition, if any special applications are needed, it will be difficult for the provider to react successfully.
2. Who from your team will be working on my account, and who will be my direct contact? What experience does my direct contact possess?
Just as important as the community platform is the team behind it. As conversations deepen, it is reasonable to ask who specifically will be managing the community on an ongoing basis. Community work is complex, and having a manager who has managed multiple communities is a big positive. Qualities to look for in community managers include expertise in qualitative and quantitative research, organization and project management skills, energy, and intellectual curiosity. You want a community manager who becomes passionate about your business and its products and services.
Communities also have other team members working on an account such as associate community managers and analysts. They are also important members of the team as they work to help with moderation, member emails, and coding open ended responses. (A good bonus question to ask a provider is, 'do you code every single open end response?")
A conduit to technical support is also important, especially in the front end of the process. A subtler indicator of the quality of a provider can be how they behave in the ‘courting process’. Good questions, strong communication, and a high level of responsiveness can be good indicators of a strong provider. However, make sure the individuals involved in the courting process are part of the ongoing service team.
3. How would you configure the community to handle my brands and segments?
This will provide you with an idea of how the provider approaches a community project. Do they have a clear understanding of brands and segmentation? Have they dealt with clients who have multiple brands? Does the provider recommend one community or multiple? There is no one right answer, but a good provider will have members of their team who have experience dealing with similar issues, who can communicate the range of options.
4. How do you keep community members engaged?
Keeping members engaged is a fundamental part of being an insight community provider. After all, to leverage the recruiting investment over time, a good portion of the community members need to be retained. There are a wide range of tactics that work. Perhaps the biggest factor is an overall respect and appreciation for the members of the community. This respect and appreciation can be even more valuable than the hard incentives associated with the community. Also, look for platform features such as participation points and badges. Frequency and consistency of interaction are big drivers as well.
Another important aspect is closing the loop, including thanking members for their participation and sharing information pertaining to the results of activities. It's important that community members understand they are an important part of the company’s decision making.
Finally, an experienced insights team is an important factor in overall success. Their interaction with members can keep participants excited and willing to engage on an ongoing basis.
5. What are the major cost parameters, and what additional charges are possible?
There are several variables that can impact the cost of an insight community. Some of these include the number of activities running per month, the number of members in the community, recruiting, and incentives. It's also important to understand the particulars of the data analysis. For example, does the provider code (analyze) all of the open-ended responses? What specific information will be included in the final reports?
While the contract will govern the basic parameters of the community, it's very important to understand if there are additional charges if more activities run through the community than originally projected, or if there are charges for more specialized tasks such as online chats, idea sessions, and home use test. What you're trying to avoid is significant and unexpected incremental costs. A good provider will be able to greatly limit this through good upfront definition and some flexibility.
6. What sort of segmenting, filtering, and cross tabulation capabilities do you have?
Single segment insight communities typically have 500 to 600 members. However, what if there are multiple segments of importance to the company? This will necessitate a larger overall community with the ability to segment activities based on the groups. A system that can easily manage this dynamic is a big plus. Likewise, it's important that data can be filtered on the backend as part of the reporting function. You may want to send an activity to all groups, but look at the responses by segment as well. You may also want to filter by a specific demographic such as income or gender. Finally, although cross tabs are typically thought of as a tool in quantitative studies, it's also helpful at times to view certain cross tabs in a community environment, keeping in mind the data group might be smaller than for a traditional quantitative study.
7. Describe how you would execute against the following project types: feedback on six early stage product/service concepts, exploration of the consumer purchase process, help in establishing buyer personas, evaluation of a new website, and execution of a home use test.
These types of questions will give you a feel for the experience level of the community provider’s team, and their process or formula for handling some important, but typical, activity types. More importantly, you’ll probably be able to determine whether or not they have executed these particular activities in number.
8. How long does it take to get my final report after an activity has launched?
Establishing an acceptable timeline for reporting is typically a top priority for the community client. If you know the CMO is always looking for immediate feedback, you'll need to understand what information is available in real time as well, and what capability the provider has in terms of delivering reports within days versus weeks of the activity closing. Some community providers allow members a week to respond and then take another week to complete the report. It's also helpful to gain an understanding of what format types are available for the final reporting.
9. How much time do I (as the client) have to invest to get good results from the community? What sort of commitment is required within my organization?
These are great questions that are seldom asked. Companies are so focused on vetting the community provider that they fail to ask what a good client does to help ensure success of their community. The community provider should have a strong onboarding plan that encompasses client permissions, a schedule for weekly activities, and a two to three-month rough calendar of activities. The community provider can do a lot of the heavy lifting on each of those issues. However, it is critical that the client plays an active role in establishing the member composition of the community. Additionally, it's critical that the client provides research objectives for the community, with as much company/customer background as possible.
Next, the community provider and client need to establish a communication protocol. This might be emails as needed, or a weekly call on a specific day, and larger and more complex projects will probably require even more interaction. A good community provider will be able to take a limited amount of information and turn it around into strong activities. Beyond this interaction, a certain amount of advocacy within the client company is needed so that the organization becomes conditioned to use the community on an ongoing basis.
10. What happens if I have a need to run more activities than outlined in the contract?
Some community providers are very strict in adhering to an activity level consistent with the contract. This means that additional expenses can occur relatively easy. Seeking a more flexible contract is reasonable. Everyone wins if the community is used extensively and delivering great insight to the client. Of course, if the community runs at an activity rate twice what was outlined in the contract, a provider is going to look for an adjustment. But being totally inflexible is not the basis for a long-standing relationship. Asking the community provider how they have specifically handled variation in the number of activities will be very helpful in both evaluating providers and preventing a misunderstanding.
11. How long does it take to get a community up and running? What are the key steps?
In order to launch a community, the client will need to gain consensus on and execute some key elements of a community such as desired community composition, terms and conditions, member screening, and site design. A good provider plays a key role in making this process run smoothly and efficiently. The actual mechanics of the community build can happen in less than a week. However, gaining consensus on the before mentioned components usually means a community will take approximately 30-45 days to launch.
12. What separates your company from competitors?
There are a lot of options in the research world and more companies are entering the insight community space. It's instructive to listen to how providers describe how they are different from the competition. A good provider should be able to describe what their strengths are and what differentiates them from the competition. Their answers to the previous eleven questions offer a good starting point. Further, the more sophisticated companies will be able to articulate a very specific positioning for their company. For example, one provider may use technology to deliver the customer information faster than the competitive set. Also, a conversation of this nature can sometimes give you a sense of which provider culture best fits your culture. Sometimes that will be aspirational on the part of the client. For example, the client might currently be a methodical company looking to become faster and more decisive in their decision making. If you want a fast, decisive culture then you may want a community provider that exudes that quality in the proposal process. Remember, nothing speaks louder than actions.
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