• March 19, 2020
  • By Adriana Waterston, senior vice president of insights and strategy, Horowitz Research

Online Communities Can Keep Marketing Insights Going During COVID-19

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We are navigating uncharted waters, living through the worst pandemic in our lifetimes. The impacts of COVID-19 are being felt in every aspect of American life and across every industry, crippling the stock market, and forcing local businesses to a screeching halt.

As we navigate these uncertain waters it remains critical to keep market and consumer insights a top priority. The uncertainties at hand mean that consumer sentiment is shifting daily, fueled in part by the “always on” nature of media and social media.

But by leveraging innovative methodologies and new technologies, companies can react nimbly to this environment and keep insights going in the age of COVID-19.

As humans beings we yearn for connection, especially in difficult times. Yet our desire for connection is in direct contradiction to the mandate for physical (“social”) distancing. Virtual tools, whether online insight communities, online focus groups, or selfnographies (where people take videos of themselves talking about issues and submit them), can not only deliver the research you need now but can actually be a welcome respite from people who are feeling isolated in containment zones.

Online Insight Communities

One of the best methodologies for research in the current environment are online communities. Marrying the best of both the qualitative and quantitative worlds, online insight communities use a familiar, social media-esque platform with a low learning curve for participants.

Online insight communities are also an especially well-suited methodology in today’s COVID-19 environment: They can be conducted remotely; they are highly agile, allowing researchers to pivot their focus in today’s fluid environment; and they provide both quantitative measures for quick “gut checks,” as well as more nuanced deep dives from open-ended questions and participant-to-participant interaction.

But while online communities are a great methodology, they can also be easily mismanaged—wasting time, resources, and money. Horowitz Research has been conducting online insight communities for more than 15 years and has developed a list of best practices for online communities in the context of COVID-19. As you consider how to continue generating actionable insights from online community research, here are some top tips that will help you today and beyond.

Set straightforward expectations and be sure to communicate them clearly.

Everyone’s lives are out of whack. Schools are out; schedules disrupted. Providing participants a clear outline of what to expect gives everyone structure, helping to provide a sense of normality and routine.

Take care when framing your questions. While daily life is exceptional right now, you need your participants to think about their norm.

Frame of reference is always critical in research, and it is especially crucial when crafting questions today. For example, asking participants how frequently they go shopping is bound to yield different results right now than had the question been asked just a few short weeks ago. Unless you are asking about the impact of COVID-19, remember that everything now is the exception to the rule and your questions need to be crafted appropriately to get participants in the right frame of reference.

Even if the community topic has nothing to do with COVID-19, give your participants space and permission to discuss it if they want to.

This could be in the form of an open forum or chatroom that you set up specifically to address coronavirus topics. And when participants make reference to their situation in responses to other questions, consider whether a personal response—having the moderator reach out one-to-one—might be appropriate.

Be cognizant of the impact of the current situation on responses.

Moderators and analysts need to be able to read between the lines to ensure participants’ responses aren’t colored by the current situation—or if they are, to understand the extent of that impact. In this context, there is more of a need than ever for probing, follow-up questions and clarification to ensure you are getting a full, accurate picture.

Develop an incentive structure that makes sense—and in this time, flexibility with incentives is key.

Consumers’ lives are in a state of instability, and many may be more focused on ensuring they can pay for essentials rather than using incentives for extras. Gift cards for grocery stores, restaurant delivery services, entertainment services, or cash (a prepaid card or PayPal) may be highly valuable.

Remember (and take advantage of) the fact that research is a touchpoint for customer interaction.

If your community is branded, the platform is just one more place that your customers and potential customers interact with your brand. In this time of uncertainty, use your research not only to learn from your customers but also to communicate with them.

With a bevy of different task types, online communities can help bring almost anything you would do in-person online with ease, including user experience testing, program testing, creative and marketing testing, brand perception, diaries, in-home use tests, and more. Consumer insights remain as important  as ever, if not more so, and we are fortunate to have an arsenal of digital tools to help us stay tuned in with our customers in these difficult times.

Adriana Waterston is senior vice president of insights and strategy at Horowitz Research, a provider of consumer market research specializing in media content, services, and technology. A seasoned quantitative and qualitative market researcher with expertise on consumers and their attitudes towards their media tools, Waterston has moderated hundreds of groups and conducted in-home ethnographic research on a bevy of topics, ranging from advertising and marketing effectiveness; media and entertainment consumption; unmet needs in technology and media; pricing and packaging; travel; customer service satisfaction; lifestyles and family dynamics; and brand/corporate image. 

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