Online Research Communities: Common Design Elements

Research agencies that consistently conduct community based projects tend to do so using the same set of features and design elements for most of the projects they run. What design elements compose that set, however, vary considerably from firm to firm. Given this variance, there is opportunity to learn from one another and to think about how the wide breadth of possibility introduced by a community platform can help to sell more research.

To seize this opportunity, we’ve identified and reviewed the different emerging or commonly executed community design elements on Recollective. In doing so, we provide a window into how the industry currently works with communities, give you a sense of where future opportunity exists, and how you can better position your own research bids.

Design Elements

  • Private – IDI replacements, no sharing between participants
  • Collaborative – Focus Group replacements, aim to generate conversation
  • Blue Sky – Open-ended structure, participants only engage with what interests them
  • In-The-Moment – Capture designated transactions in a participant’s life
  • Journal – Ethnographic, document elements of a participants day-to-day life
  • Ongoing – Always accessible research platform, achieves speed and convenience

Private Communities

While most communities feature some kind of social, collaborative component, keeping things private is sometimes advantageous. In Private Communities, each individual participant and the moderator’s private conversations becomes the object of study.

These studies are designed as in-depth interview replacements. Private, in-depth conversation allows both the researcher and the participant to be more effective with their time as neither is required to schedule a call or meeting to communicate. Rather, both groups can engage when doing so is convenient to them. As a result, more meaningful conversations can be had with a smaller budget.

Common populations range from 25 up to 150, beyond which the text and video heavy responses can become difficult to effectively analyze. These communities tend to be shorter in duration than other community methods, often ranging from 3 to 10 days in length. Participants are sometimes given the option to complete everything in a single visit and Activities are commonly tagged with a time-to-complete, allowing the respondent to work at their own pace.  

Communities are often kept private when engaging with a difficult and/or expensive audience to reach because the method focuses only on collecting the insights most critical to the project. Conversely, many traditional benefits broadly associated with a community methods are lost.


Brainstorming, Collaboration, & Ideation

When considering an online qualitative community, researchers are likely to think of communities designed specifically for the purpose of bringing participants together to collaborate around a designated topic.

Brainstorming, Collaboration, and Ideation studies could be thought of as a focus group replacement. Unlike focus groups, though, all voices can contribute at once, creating more room to generate conversation. As part, populations tend to vary between 25 and 75 for overall projects, often split between studies or segments to help with organization and to keep certain users focused. Still, collaborative elements can be leveraged within any community scope.

These projects tend to be slightly longer in duration than Private communities, ranging between 1 and 4 weeks. This provides the researcher with more time to factor responses and sentiment into the trajectory of the conversation, implementing an iterative approach.

Effective studies within this category do a good job of coaching and incentivizing participants to explore the social community feeds. In the context of Recollective, this might mean splitting Tasks into as many overall Activities as reasonably possible, increasing the number of times that a participant will visit a response stream.


Blue Sky

Communities that leverage Blue Sky design elements extend participants a great deal of freedom to engage with the research however is most appropriate or interesting for them. These studies aim to position community members as the directors of the content to be explored while researchers adapt to keep up.

Researchers brave enough to engage with Blue Sky methodologies remain relatively rare, but the concept is an exciting one. For example, there is potential to create studies that revolve around a miniature online ecosystem, where researchers can focus less on responses to specific questions and more on the implications of how a given sample behaves in and makes use of a space.

Those communities that currently feature a Blue Sky approach often do so by first implementing open discussions. These discussions are then mined for inspiration; content deserving of exploration is developed into more structured activities. This approach, due to the fact that it is participant-driven, ensures participants feel invested in the project’s formation, which drives them to contribute quality content.

Blue Sky community solutions are a good option if engaging with a population of respondents with a notable expertise or highly specific interest, such as video game enthusiasts invested in a particular online game or healthcare business owners, that the researcher does not or could not be expected to fully understand.

A Blue sky community could also be thought of as a particularly genuine form of qualitative research. These projects aim to avoid biases that might be unwittingly imposed by the researcher or marketing team. These projects are an ideal starting point in a scenario where it’s clear that research is necessary, but the researcher is not sure where to begin.

Populations and durations tend to be larger and longer, given there is some ambiguity regarding what specifically you’ll get from a given participant.



The asynchronous nature of communities combined with mobile access presents unique opportunity to capture moments with participants as they happen. A participant need not be tied to a specific location or time, as they might with another engagement tool or method.

These studies are often designed around scavenger hunt type exercises where participants document a journey via photos and videos. As part, these communities often feature a Blue Sky component, given that too much influence on the part of the researcher might spoil a otherwise typical and illustrative consumer outing.

Communities designed specifically around an in-the-moment event are generally smaller in scope with a population typical of qualitative research. A longer duration however, can simplify logistics for everyone involved. It also provides more room to run activities on either side of the main in-the-world event.

Projects that have in-the-moment components are consistently common. As video becomes easier to upload and to review, projects that have an in-the-moment component but are not necessarily designed around the event, are growing in popularity.


Journaling and Ethnography

Ethnographic research, when executed in a traditional way, can be exorbitantly expensive and time consuming. The features available within most community platforms, however, can take what was once a cost prohibitive method and put it on autopilot.

Recurring journal exercises coupled with flexible options for sharing media create a consistent structure in which participants can illustrate the nuances of their day-to-day lived experience. Plus, an argument could be made that participants are more free to present an accurate depiction of their experiences, given that they no longer need to directly confront a researcher in-person.

While these studies tend to focus on a smaller population, a community platform provides the tools to scale considerably. As for duration, a longer term is generally better.

Similar to in-the-moment activities, journals are regularly seen in studies as an add-on that isn’t necessarily the main focus of the project. Rather, these tools can add valuable nuance to an otherwise standard study.


Ongoing Communities

It’s often assumed that an ongoing community will be a dedicated MROC, a single study with several hundred or thousands of consumers who take part in a ongoing engagement that might last years. While this is certainly an option, and a common one, there are other ways of approaching a community platform to exploit the benefits of a large scale community without the need to maintain continuous engagement.

Projects in this category typically feature methods that begin to blur the line between qual and quant research and, consequently, deal with populations to match, starting around 300 and, in our experience, expanding all the way to 5000.

Regarding duration, it is increasingly common for brands to commission an ongoing site from which to launch short-term engagements as needed. This approach facilitates a faster path to respondents and encourages a closer relationship between marketers and their audience. These sites are often supported by an agency or agencies.

If a brand owns an ongoing community platform, an agency can position as a go-to source of expertise for projects launched from the platform. This can help the agency to establish new relationships within the organization, as they work with different divisions and teams to make best use of the established resource.

An increase in the number of brands purchasing their own community platform to be supported by agencies suggests changing ideas surrounding who will control the interfaces used to engage with consumers for the purpose of research.

Also, a community positioned as a platform or hub for different research tools speaks to a possible future within the marketing research industry, a trend that will likely grow more pronounced as technology allows for more communication and synergy between tools.


Research communities continue to be remarkably versatile, with no other research tool showing the potential to support such a widely varying array of methods. More exciting still is the ability to mix and match different techniques to deliver truly custom solutions. Ultimately, this versatility means that a research consultant can confidently initiate conversations about how to best approach any given business problem.

Boosting Recollective Activity Socialization

Recollective presents participants with numerous opportunities to collaborate and connect as a community. Primarily, this collaboration takes place within either Discussion Topics or Activity Response Streams.

While participants are quick to collaborate within Discussions, the social features available for Activities are sometimes overlooked by both researchers and community participants.

This is likely because thread-based discussion forums have been around for decades now, but in the context of research, activity response streams are often a new concept for researchers and participants.

Inadvertently overlooking response streams is a shame. Doing so is a missed opportunity to socialize as much as possible and, in turn, generate more feedback, especially given the insightful, creative thought that participants tend to contribute within Activities. Drawing more attention to these responses will generate new ideas – ideas that would otherwise be untapped – and will encourage more and better responses.

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Top 6 Must-have Community Features for Online Ethnographic Research

An online research community is inherently ethnographic. A group of related individuals are engaged and observed with the aim of better understanding what defines them as a group. At least the opportunity to approach the data from this perspective always exists, even if that isn’t the explicit aim of the researcher.

One key component of traditional ethnographic research is field-based data collection that prioritizes observation over direct questioning. Observation allows the researcher to contextualize the gaps between what people say versus what they actually do. A research community however, removes the researcher from the field and relies on the community interface to collect data for them.

And that can be a positive!

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Symbiotic Trends at IIeX 2016

iiex-featured-image-largeA couple of weeks ago we were basking in the sunshine and heat of Atlanta, attending the Insight Innovation Exchange (IIeX) conference. Each year provides a fantastic opportunity to not only meet new and existing customers, but to also soak up some great presentations by speakers from North America.

This year three themes struck me as particularly prominent:

  1. Visceral visualization – Virtual environments and more robust media in general
  2. Interrogating respondent’s implicit motivations and feelings
  3. Automation of analysis

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Research Community: Build Meaningful Interactions with Younger Audiences

For interesting results, mix teenagers with a dash of alcohol in an online research community, garnish with lime (or the branding of your choice).

Recently, the team here at Recollective supported that kind of cocktail community and it highlighted several key advantages of communities and online qual in general. Namely:

  1. The Safety of a Virtual Environment
  2. The Value of Familiar Surroundings
  3. Respondent Attention Retention

The community ran over 2 weeks with 20 participants. It aimed to establish a comprehensive understanding of recently of-age participants’ relationships with various liquors and how these associations influence their in-store decision making.

Though these advantages were particularly evident given the unique variables at play in this study, these benefits can be found and exploited in a wide variety of industries and with a broad set of research objectives, regardless of the community’s size and scope. Continue reading

My New Favourite Question

Not long ago I found myself in the midst of what was disguised as a quick online survey but proved to be a significant investment of my time. I opted in because I wanted to contribute; I opted out because I didn’t want to contribute that much.

Striking the right balance between workload and incentive is difficult.  When I’m working with a team that’s new to research communities I can, understandably, expect to hear at least one question dealing with this dilemma:

“How many questions should/can I ask in a day?”
“How much time can I expect participants to spend contributing to the community on a given day?”
“Is X enough incentive for Y time spent?”

I can provide some broad guidelines based on my exposure to other communities but I always conclude with a confident, “it depends.” The answers to these questions depend on a number of variables: demographics, subject matter, incentive offered etc. Continue reading

Using Research Communities For Brand Loyalty and WOM

One of the first projects I worked on as a marketing researcher was an ad testing study with an automotive company. As the study progressed, I found myself invested in a brand I previously had no stake or interest in. I quickly realized that the brand’s success became, even if in a very minor way, my own success.

I’ve never been a participant in a study similar to the one I mention above, but I would imagine that under the right circumstances, a participant might experience a similar affective response, namely, the emergence or cultivation of brand loyalty. Opening a conversation with participants generates goodwill and emotional generosity. This is not a new idea, but it does leave us with the question, under what circumstances can these feelings and responses be optimized?

Under what circumstances can we cultivate brand loyalty, a sense of ownership, and personal identification during the research process? Continue reading

Bias In Research Communities

Online communities change the way we think about ourselves and those around us.

I was recently discussing this with a friend of mine, through Facebook chat, of course. She is a researcher in a psychology study (currently under review) that found Facebook users often experience jealousy and a certain degree of dissatisfaction with the current state of their lives as a result of exposure to other users’ posts.

People in our online social networks typically only post (i.e. promote) positive aspects of their lives that effectively creates the illusion of a failure-free population. When we occupy these networks our perceived flaws or failures are magnified in the absence of other similar lived and shared experiences.

This study is an intriguing example of a community’s collective bias on a massive scale. The social climate, not necessarily the forum or network itself, encourages positive contributions while discouraging negatives ones (arguably to our own personal and social detriment). Continue reading