Andrew Cooper reflects on the emergence of community panels over the past 10 years, some of the resulting developments in customer insight – and what the future holds.

The prevalence of online community panels within the market research space is now clear. However the level of sophistication which the very best community panels deliver – and others could aspire to – is not always well understood.

Verve set out over 10 years ago with the purpose to become specialists in online community panels. Back then, small online qualitative communities (300-500 members) were carefully nurturing digital relationships to deliver insight from small samples of consumers. Access panels were a big deal, yet clients were paying to access their own customers, research wasn’t always respectful of the customer experience (45-minute online survey, anyone?), questionnaires were often robotically completed simply for payment or points, and all too often relationships between respondent, agency and client were transactional in nature.

With the desire to better connect brands with people who wanted to share feedback, our vision was to create an approach which allowed clients to access a (large or small) group of their own customers, however and whenever they wanted. In a dedicated online space, members would be profiled to participate in relevant, engaging projects, and collaborate with brands over time to help solve business issues in smarter, more agile ways.

We started working with clients to build community panels of anything from 1,000 to 30,000 (and more) members with the capability to deliver both deep qualitative insight and robust quantitative data, via a range of online, offline and on-mobile approaches. Selecting the right methodology with the right audience at the right time, combining this with customer data and ‘remembering’ everything members had shared previously, allowed us to deliver long term insight programmes in a genuinely new and different way.

The concept of ‘right methodology’ at the ‘right time’ has changed significantly over the years. While there is great value in capturing impressions and recall, human memory is limited, making it difficult for respondents to give accurate or non-biased responses to some questions.

The demand for, and shift towards, in-the-moment research helps address this bias. While developments in technology and the huge increase in smartphone usage provided the opportunity, community panels - with their always on access to customers - provide the solution.

Nowadays, gathering instant feedback when a consumer is researching a product or service, making a decision or using a competitor website, has become the norm and community panels - using push notifications or time / event / location triggers - have been at the heart of this change.

Community Panels have also revolutionised how customers can share their experiences and play them back in the most genuine and enlightening ways, making it easy to communicate through images, links, voice messages, videos, text and in-person activities. The end result is feedback that is pertinent to the specific experience at that moment, rich in sentiment and detail.

Alongside these developments in technology, there has been an exponential increase in the volume and availability of transactional and behavioural customer data. Using a Community Panel to integrate this passive data with member profiling information, and all actively collected research data customers share over time, opens up a broad range of exciting possibilities.

At the outset, the data allows more sophisticated activity targeting. For example, identifying customers with a certain behaviour or attitude, finding lapsed purchasers of a particular product, or pinpointing those who responded in a certain way 6 months ago and seeing how that has changed. Misattribution can be reduced by knowing things that people can’t remember and sampling based on it.

At the point of analysis, the data allows smarter ways of solving a problem. Integrating behavioural and loyalty data with profiling information and attitudinal feedback creates greater richness and a more rounded view of customers: the data explains what happens, the research explains why and what you should do about it.

Future developments will see even more opportunities for data integration, increasing the level of sophistication with which you can marry multiple strands of customer information. With the right mix of technology and expertise, community panels are the ideal platform for making sense of all this in one place. We see a future where community panels link research and insight feedback directly with eCRM, enabling businesses to understand what is influencing behaviour, and using this understanding to trigger discrete interventions as part of a single ecosystem.

The approach also lends itself to more fluid ways of collaborating with stakeholders and customers to solve a problem, enabling a more flexible use of insight throughout a project journey, with the approach for each stage being dictated by the outcome of the one that precedes it. Looking ahead, brands will benefit from rethinking formalised project schedules, shifting to more fluid, agile, multi-method working approaches.

Community panels are also changing the way insight is shared, engaged with and ultimately acted upon. They enable us to create more interesting and emotionally engaging outputs – back to those images, links, voice messages, videos again – and also provide a platform that supports the easy sharing of different types of content with different stakeholders based on the need.

In our digitally-dominated world, it is inevitable that this type of insight communication will become ever more prevalent, with a much more dynamic approach to getting the the right content, to the right people, at the right time.

All of these benefits – better integration of multiple data sources, a more agile and iterative approach to project work, more sophisticated communication and sharing of insights – are in the more evolved examples leading to an escalation in the status of the insight team. Such teams can spend more time driving respected insight across the business, rather than struggling to get it done.

This article featured in MrWeb’s Online Communities special feature, September 2019