A wee rant. I came across this conversation about online communities on Research Live. There is a discussion of the pros and cons of research-based online communities, branded online communities, and right at the end a commenter who says that all this community talk is ridiculous and simply listening to internet buzz (via networks like) Facebook is the way forward.
Listen, my children. Many many years ago, I was a wee trainee research manager for a company that did a very boring thing. We made the fragrances that go into washing powders. We did not think this was at all dull. We lived and breathed functional fragrance (quite literally, marketing was right next to the factory). We researched all sorts of things. We did sensory research, perfume trends research, international laundry research*, brand positioning research.
The one thing we couldn’t do is listen in to a general conversation because for the most part the ‘moment’ we were researching was transient and private.
So it is with many products and brands. For every Facebook and iPod and Easyjet and Carling Black Label, there is a product which is humble or private or low-key or taboo or just not terribly interesting. It may be everything to its creators, but it doesn’t generate talk. This does not stop the producers of these things from wanting to find out what people think.
A research community, like a survey or a piece of qualitative research, is a way of lining up your users and asking them to talk about something they may scarcely think about, day to day**. When it comes down to it, your customers may have vivid experiences and strong opinions which would never see the light of day outside of the direct conversation between researcher and user, or brand and user.
Don’t get me wrong, online metrics are important and of course you should collect them; but in many cases they will be absent, deeply uninformative or even misleading. Also: (deep breath) not everybody is online; not everybody important to your category is online. They’re certainly not all on Facebook. And I’m flailing in frustration now, but really, systematic research is one of the best methods of finding out what people think of your (slightly boring, not-dominating-Twitter) thing.
*Anyone who thinks that it would be impossible to talk about washing powder for very long is sorely, sorely mistaken.
**For example, blank video tape, back in the day. Try mining that.