The Panel Is Not Passé
Properly built, an online community can generate engagement and two-way dialogue.
Posted Jan 21, 2010
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As marketing and research executives ascertain their goals and objectives for the upcoming year, social media is becoming an increasingly large component of their priorities. Below are some of the questions often raised:

  • How can I make better business decisions based on what the customer really wants? 
  • What new tools are available to inject the voice of the customer into the decision making process?  
  • What can I do to incorporate the systemic rise of social networking into my business?
  • How far do I want to go with social media?

Some marketers mistakenly think building a social media presence is solely about reaching customers through public venues such as Facebook and Twitter; there is in fact a wide variety of solutions available, all designed to help them meet their social media goals and objectives. Branded online customer communities and online panels have seen the most growth recently. In fact, a recent IDC study, "U.S. Online Community Software 2009 to 2013 Forecast: Strong Growth Despite Recession," predicts that the U.S. online-community-software market will grow from $278.4 million in 2009 to $1.6 billion in 2013.  

Nevertheless, there does appear to be some confusion around online panels and customer communities and how they play into the social-media realm.

A panel is admittedly not a novel concept, but moving it online to leverage the possibilities of the Internet has made this tool even more powerful:

  • You can query a group of individuals and receive feedback.
  • Online panels generally turn around information more quickly than traditional market research methods, such as phone surveys and focus groups.
  • You can also define the composition of the panel to ensure that you are targeting the people you want to reach.

A Web-based community is a newer concept, but it is simply moving an offline concept — a group of individuals with a common interest sharing and discussing ideas  — online. In this case, the shared interest is your business or the market space you are addressing.

Similar to a panel, you can ask questions in a community, but there is more of a two-way dialog. Members talk to each other and talk back to the brand, thereby building on another layer of communication. Visitors will more frequently engage not only with the brand (through discussions, chats, rich-media albums) but also with other members of the community. Moreover, these communities are often private, so the brand can share more confidential information, and the members feel more comfortable giving feedback and interacting with each other.

When should you use a panel and when should you use a community? These tools are fundamentally quite diverse, and the decision can be made based on a subset of the broader questions above.

Some might say that online communities can be more work than an online panel, and can be more expensive. So why would anyone in their right mind consider an online community? Well, they are a good choice if you are interested in one or more of the following three things:

Deeper consumer insight: You are interested not only in what you want to ask your community, but in what you didn't know to ask. Too often, corporate mistakes are made by having an unknown problem sneak up on you rather than a known risk not working out. Having a community that is proactively telling you things serves as an early-warning device on business decisions that might go bad. The community can be a place to test the waters with new concepts and gauge reactions, not just answers. What if Tropicana had had a community that warned them about their new packaging? If Facebook had run its Buddy Beacon idea by its community? In this way, a community can act to limit the tail on the distribution of business decisions.

Panels can get you short answers very fast, but communities tend to comprise people who are highly engaged by you and your company. Therefore, they want deep interactions and, in turn, will provide deep input. With many other insight tools, participants often just fill in the blanks as quickly as possible so they can get whatever reward was promised. Facebook and Twitter can certainly reach higher volumes of consumers, but the dialog is usually one way (and with Twitter, limited to 140 characters!), making it tough to directly connect with each member. Companies using online communities can run the market research they plan to do in order to further refine the questions they ask to get a better sense of what is on people's minds before launching it on a broader scale. This not only generates better market research, but also saves market-research dollars.

Interest in building advocacy: Very few people have ever participated in a pure survey and thought, "I can't wait to do it again." Even fewer have thought, "I want to rush out and buy that company's products." For many brands, a well-run community takes members and turns them into ambassadors — driving interest around offline events, building word-of-mouth buzz around the community itself and the brand. This is something a Facebook and Twitter presence can rarely accomplish because the level of engagement is not as high. Note that in some communities, interest in building advocacy is an explicit focus; this is not an objective for all. But where it is of interest, a community is the best insight-gathering and listening tool that can also provide advocacy as an additional benefit. 

Faster and cheaper access to ethnographic data on your customers: Want a picture of what is in your closet? A video of how you use your kitchen? Instead of undertaking a timely and expensive offline study you can do this quickly and easily within your community. Start an activity. If it involves video, send out some inexpensive flip cams and you are in business.

Hopefully this helps your quest for the best social media path for your company. The most important element is to clearly define your objectives and select the strategy that best meets your needs. Trying to assemble a large group of consumers to drive traffic to an event or disseminate product upgrades and updates? Facebook might be a good choice. Looking for quick answers around certain topics for market research? Panels might be for you. If your goal is to bring the customer into your boardroom and your marketing meetings and to foster deeper engagement with your brand, then you should explore an online community.

About the Author

Steve Howe (showe@thinkpassenger.com) is president and chief executive officer of Passenger, a creator of online brand communities that drive customer advocacy and insight. Passenger creates and manages online brand communities for some of the world's leading companies that increase customer engagement, encourage consumer advocacy, and harness community insight to drive better business decisions.

Please note that the Viewpoints listed in CRM magazine and appearing on destinationCRM.com represent the perspective of the authors, and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editors. You may leave a public comment regarding this article by clicking on "Comments" at the top.
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