Online Research Communities: Observe the B2B Buyer in their Natural Habitat
How well do you know Singapore? That probably depends on how much time you’ve spent there. If you only spent a day in Singapore, you likely remember great things about it. You saw a few of the must-sees, sampled a highly-recommended restaurant, and enjoyed the frisson of excitement generated by being somewhere new. Maybe you got stuck in traffic or found the city’s layout confusing. Still, if I asked you to tell me about Singapore, I would probably get a highlights reel. The rosy lens of hindsight often blots out negative experiences.
But what if you lived in Singapore for work for three months and I asked you to email me every day? I’d get much more nuanced insight into the highs and lows of Singaporean expat life. I could ask about the experience of grocery shopping and what the biggest challenges are as you integrate into your new office. You could even send me some of your Slack conversations with your new coworkers. I could understand your experience as it unfolds and witness the intensity of your emotions along the way.
Online Research Communities: Real-Time Reporting, In-Depth Timeline
We see similar patterns in market research. An annoying login issue, needing to find a workaround for a clumsy UX, or challenging integration between two products might not get the full dramatic explanation from customers if you don’t ask about it until weeks later. Even if it significantly impacted customer experience at the time, they may not remember how annoyed they were when asked to recall how they felt after the fact.
That’s why if you need to ask your B2B customers a question like “how was your experience over the first 30 days using this new service?” an interview or questionnaire isn’t going to get you the nuanced data you need.
However, a well-designed online research community provides a complete narrative of the customer experience as it unfolds. Instead of recollections distorted by time or restricted by interview length, market researchers can access richly detailed, real-time reactions. They can also observe how participants solve problems and witness in-depth group discussions about the experience.
What Makes An Online Research Community Work
In a typical online research community, participants share a digital platform from which they contribute a variety of content. They might be asked to participate in group discussions, leave diary-style entries, and answer polls or short surveys.
This format isn’t unique to B2B tech research. But there are some tips and tricks we’ve uncovered to maximize the utility of online research communities for our industry.
The Right Tools
There are plenty of tools out there designed exclusively for running online research communities. But, here at Cascade Insights, we don’t use them. Depending on our participants, we use Slack, Reddit, or Microsoft Teams (secured through the use of private groups).
We made this choice for a few reasons. First, a successful online research community thrives on robust participation. Participants are much more likely to regularly contribute if we’re reaching them through a program that’s already open on their desktop and mobile devices every day.
Also, a lot of tools designed specifically for online research communities have clunky UX, as many of these tools grew out of mom and pop research shops with limited technical chops. Our tech-sector participants expect better, and the tools we leverage already have mass adoption and appeal. Plus, they have all the functionality we need. We have polling, security settings, and the ability to create side channels. Plus, we gain bonus capabilities like GIPHY and emojis to keep things interesting.
The Right Use Cases
Online research communities are tailor-made for longitudinal, qualitative research. Classic use cases are when an organization wants to follow a cohort across a 30-90 day shared experience, such as migrating from one solution to another, accessing a new customer base, a new product launch, or developer-oriented scenarios such as application architecture and implementation.
The Classic Use Case
We built a community to analyze the onboarding experience for a Fortune 500 major cloud provider. They wanted to understand how well their “welcome aboard” email campaign supported new users. And they discovered some surprising things.
First off, the majority of people weren’t even receiving the emails. That was a relatively simple fix. But once participants received the emails, we found that the pacing and content of the campaign didn’t align with customer needs. The information in the emails was behind customers’ adoption. On Day 7 they were getting tips and tricks that would have been more useful on Day 2. Customers further reported that they wanted the emails to be better customized to their user profile so that they felt personal, not generic.
Without an online community approach, it’s unlikely this client would have gotten the full picture of the issues facing their campaign. Interviews or polls might have uncovered one of the issues. But, because we asked about something relatively mundane (one of hundreds of emails received by our participants), real-time reactions were our best bet for getting the level of detail the client would need to remediate any issues uncovered by the study.
Finally, having the client hear, in real-time, that a customer was receiving tips and help they would have rather gotten nearly a week ago, is priceless.
A Creative Application
A client wanted deep insight into their buyer’s journey. They needed those insights to include the perspective of each persona involved in the decision-making process. We thought that for such a complex scenario, we would benefit from a more in-depth narrative. We also wanted to see different personas interact with each other. An online community achieved both goals.
The personas targeted by this client were big Reddit users, so we created a secure forum for the project. Our participants represented each persona across the buying process. Typically, we would follow participants through the process. In this case, we created a mock buying process. Each day had questions and activities that simulated a different stage of the buyer’s journey.
We gained outstanding insight into how different personas reacted and interacted as they confronted the decisions and challenges simulating the different stages of the process. Because they had activities and questions with which to interact, the feedback was very organic, and the daily change of pace led to great participation.
What You Learn From Online Research Communities
Just like spending months immersed in a new culture, online communities provide a huge scope of detailed insights.
Another advantage is the immediacy of the reactions. If a customer has a frustrating experience or a great experience, they can tell you about it while it’s still fresh. You can gauge the intensity of their reaction much more readily.
With online research communities, you can also observe group problem-solving. Watching participants support each other provides valuable insight into what works for resolving an issue or learning a feature. These insights are useful for developing subsequent support and onboarding materials.
Finally, online research communities are outstanding for use with global audiences. The time-flexible nature of the tools means that participants can effectively interact with each other even if they’re logging in at different times of day.
What’s Tricky About Online Research Communities
As with any methodology, online communities have their limitations.
Finding the right participant cohort can be a challenge. For most online community studies, it’s critical to find users at the same stage of the experience who expect to follow an identical usage trajectory. Comparing the onboarding experience of an SMB marketing manager adopting a new CRM vs. an enterprise doing the same may not yield comparable experience. This would damage the validity of the sample. Therefore, it’s important to note that, more than other methodologies, online communities require you to identify the right participants.
Another challenge is participation falling off over time. We mete out incentives to mitigate this risk. However, if your timeframe is longer than 90 days, it’s a factor that needs to be taken into account.
Get The Whole Story Of Your B2B User Experience
If you have a complex, longitudinal situation from which you need a detailed account, an online community can get you the complete picture you need. Make sure you’re working with a partner with the industry expertise to design a community with the right participants and robust level of engagement needed to make the project a success.
This article is brought to you by Cascade Insights. With B2B-focused market research, Cascade Insights helps companies eliminate guesswork and capitalize on opportunities in the B2B technology sector.
Special thanks to CEO Sean Campbell, President & CTO Scott Swigart, and Director of Research Operations Harrison May for advising on this article.
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