As Sylver’s Senior Quantitative Market Research Analyst, I find myself often in conversations with clients about communities. The trend I see is that clients today are looking at customer communities as a means to increase the speed of insight delivery and to reduce project-fielding costs. What I also see is a lot of confusion around what a “community” is exactly.
In market research, the term “community” is often frustrating as it is used to generally describe two materially different forms of longer-term customer engagements (i.e., communities lasting a minimum of 3 months to 1+ years). In this longer-term community category, there are online panels and then there are online research communities (ORCs).
With this article it’s my intention to illustrate — through five different dimensions — how online panels and ORCs differ from one another. While both commonly share the goal of establishing an at-your-ready type of engagement with your current and/or potential customers, these important differences should be kept in mind when considering which type of community is best at supporting you to achieve your market research “community” insight goals.
General industry guidelines recommend using online panel communities if you want to have a set of pre-recruited individuals at-your-ready for ad hoc quant or qual projects. An online panel in this case provides a “community” of individuals for you to access as needed. However, it does not support the building of a “community” for those recruited into it. Many industries with “hard to reach” sample targets set up panels for this use, as having an online panel community can reduce recruit times to a few days vs. 2 – 4 weeks (depending on the segment) for qual and make the difference between a quant project with a “hard to reach” sample being feasible vs. not.
Think of an online panel as being similar to attending a major league baseball game. You as a ‘member’ participate by cheers, boos, and other forms of group ‘feedback’, but unless you are a player or coach, no one is going to ask you personally how your team should get the next homer!
ORCs are recommended if you want ongoing and an evolving intimate, trust-based interaction from your participants. ORCs are really committed to creating a sense of community for all involved — the participants, moderator and client. The interaction model associated with ORCs fosters relationships and assumes that frequent and ongoing communication will occur within the community. For example, many pharmaceutical companies use online communities to learn about the journey of individuals living with specific medical conditions. The ORC format in this case allows for the capture of information daily and for the ability of a relationship to be developed between the participant, the moderator and other members of that community. It’s the building of this relationship over time that deepens the insight capabilities of this format of “community.”
So, if we think of an online panel community as a baseball game, we can think of an ORC as a small community book club. While baseball fans may respond in mass boos and cheers, the book club moderator might shoot you a ‘look’ if that is how you answer a question on a character’s motivation. He/she wants you to go deeper in the expression of your emotion. In fact, each club member is encouraged to reveal how they interpret events and motivations through their own experiences and beliefs (and, of course, a good beverage never hurts!). The book club is a smaller, more intimate setting with ongoing, monthly interaction.
Online panels tend to have tens of thousands, if not millions, of members, whereas ORCs tend to have fewer participant members (25-500 people in total).
Online panel managers intentionally keep participation level at only a few surveys a week or 1-2 qual projects a quarter in order to prevent participant fatigue. ORC members, on the other hand, are often expected to contribute to discussion groups and activities multiple times during a week. With fewer members, it is considerably easier for an ORC community manager to monitor contributions, log-in activity, and response quality.
In fact, the ongoing communication may actually encourage and motivate MORE participation as people become emotionally involved in the topic and become friends with others in the community.
Compensation is too often an after thought when setting up “communities” — online panel or ORCs. Yet, incentives are instrumental in sustaining engagement of your community participants and thus ensuring the long-standing health of your community.
Online panels tend to pay incentives to members of the community as they complete ad hoc projects. ORC members tend to get paid a monthly incentive, aligned to their participation level in that community for the month.
Incentive “payments” can take many forms — from points later redeemable for experiences/goods to gift certificates to an actual check.
For online panels, there is little, if any, ongoing intimate and direct interaction between the administrator and panel members (outside of survey invitations and customer service). Some panels do require a minimal amount of monthly/quarterly interaction, so they can get a read on the “health” of their community at that moment in time. However, this level of engagement is rarely personalized. It is meant to really just get the pulse on whether each panel member has continued interest in being part of that particular online panel community.
ORCs on the other hand not only encourage interaction, but also depend on it in order to be successful. Thus, from a moderation standpoint, the community manager needs to be available every day to post assignments, review completed assignments, ask probing questions, and to generally support the community with any customer service or more tactical questions.
So, there you have it — the essentials of what differentiates an online panel from an ORC. Neither method of building a “community” is more “right” compared to the other. However, the decision of which type of community to create does require a fair amount of consideration and conversation should you choose to invest in building a community as a means to speed your insights delivery timeline and reduce your project field costs.
Here at Sylver, we have experience with both types of these communities. Should you need support determining which community approach is best for you, reach out to set up a conversation.
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