What are online panels and communities?

by Maggie Whitley | published on October 25, 2019

Why UX and consumer-driven insights matter

If you have ever researched a potential purchase online, you might be familiar with the never-ending rabbit hole of consumer reviews and online discussion boards. However, access to relevant peer feedback was not always the norm it is today. Before the late 90’s most online chatter came directly from companies pushing out information about their products and services. Consumers longed to hear from each other about what works and why. Almost overnight the online community of sharing was born.

Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff delve into this phenomenon in their book, Groundswell, which explores the overnight swell of consumer generated-content through online social forums. Their research explains the importance of mining this organic chatter through online communities and panels. While Li and Bernoff agree that there are many homegrown ways to monitor online conversation, they believe, as do we, that in order to gain real insight you are better off working with vendors that provide professional tools and services.

"At their core, traditional research methods are designed to answer questions, not tap into consumer insights." (Groundswell, 2009)

The difference between an online panel and research community

Online research communities

When it comes to online communities, the idea is to hear how consumers are organically talking about brands, services, or challenges they face every day. Community members can start discussions about new ideas and collaborate around topics they care about. 

Research panels

A panel is a group of people who are interested in taking part in research activities for your company or brand. Panels allow for open conversation without compromising control, but the conversations are generally more structured in a research panel. The respondents only participate when prompted by our moderators who push out surveys, discussion threads, polls, etc. that allow for natural conversation to occur. If a community is a free-flowing garden, a panel is a structured vegetable patch.

When to use an online research community

To generate strong research communities your focus must be qualitative in nature — your goal is to explore the depth and detail around your topic. Communities are defined by peer-to-peer involvement. Communities create space for open conversation and help participants as much as they help your company. Communities (and panels) become the first place they go to learn about usability issues, un-met need states, unusual use cases, or white space for innovation. In an effort to help themselves, consumers will hand you insights, that (if used by your company) will ultimately help them in the long run. At the core of community learning, we see that human problems are business problems.

An example of a successful online community was when an outdoor clothing retailer wanted to uncover innovative product ideas and potential line extensions — roadblocks that many companies face. The retailer used an online community geared towards spurring conversation around getting outside. Getting first-hand insights can help drive overall strategy, no matter who comprises the community or what the focus is. 

When to leverage an online panel

In addition to traditional surveys, polls, and mass collaborations, online research panels can be used to answer questions or vet new ideas. The user research becomes information used to make well-informed decisions. The key to a healthy panel is finding the right scale, mix, and participation of respondents — utilizing regular communications, rewards, and up-to-date technology to ensure your customers are ready to give feedback when you need it.

young woman using an ipad

Best practices in panel and community research

The success of online community user research hinges on the ability to learn from experience and observation. There are a few best practices to ensure you are collecting actionable, consumer-generated, qualitative content and are making the most of your resources.

  • Screen panel members to make sure they match your target demographics. Not everyone that uses your products or services will be part of your target demographic. Recruiting and selecting the right panel members ensures you’ll get quality responses that are representative of your target consumers.  
  • Have someone that’s dedicated to recruiting panelists, managing communications, and moderating the discussions. This person should be a support resource for the panel members. They will also set expectations on they types of participation and how often panel or community members will be asked to participate, paving the way for open and honest feedback.
  • Create an incentive program to encourage members to participate. Although we’ve found that 70% of consumers want to be actively involved in designing the products and services they buy, an incentive program is a good way to thank panel members and show appreciation for their time and insights.

Bellomy has been intimately involved with online research communities, and has been mining and analyzing consumer-generated qualitative content, for over 10 years. Contact a Bellomy expert to discuss the right approach to achieve your user research goals. 

cover of the how to choose a panel partner PDFDownload our guide to choosing an online research community partner

Make sure the partner you select to build your online research community has the science, art, technology, and heart to successfully collect meaningful insights that will help your organization become more customer-centric.

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