As connectivity and technology continues to develop, it is becoming easier for consumers to engage with businesses across a range of devices. This is not only giving consumers a more diverse experience, but it is also increasing the ability and the pressure on marketers to listen to their audience and respond.
Customer loyalty is therefore becoming an increasingly challenging objective for businesses in all industries and sectors. To establish a meaningful and lasting competitive advantage, retailers need to consider new ways of engaging consumers in an ongoing and valuable brand relationship.
One option to achieve this goal is to engage consumers in online communities, specifically research communities.
What is an online research community?
An online research community is a platform which companies can use to engage with consumers and uncover insights into their opinions and beliefs regarding brands, products and trends.
Creating a community which encourages consumers, potential audiences and stakeholders to share original and influential content gives another platform for brands to connect with audiences. Members of the community are encouraged to exchange their experiences and thoughts, as well as discuss ideas and suggestions, specific or broad, that the brand themselves share.
With all of us ever more time poor, it can be challenging to get a group of people to attend a three-hour-long focus group or panel discussion.
While physical focus groups are likely to take several hours out of the day, and often require travel and pre-planning, individuals can connect to the community at the time it suits them best.
The reach of the community is one of the greatest benefits for companies and researchers alike. As these communities are accessible online, consumers from a range of backgrounds, demographics and locations can be involved. This allows analysis and insights into a diverse and vast community group, which is a striking advantage for researchers and brands.
While the idea of engaging an online community is not a new trend- it has been evolving over the last decade - it is important for brands to stay on top of and open to new ways of garnering insights into the shifting trends in consumer behaviour that deliver informed business decisions.
Driving the customer relationship
Whilst online communities are already being used by some, the extensive range of benefits these platforms offer is expanding and becoming noticed across many industries. Brands are finding this provides the ability to engage with consumers on a deeper and more personal level - boosting loyalty at the same time.
This is because online communities enable your customers to talk to one another, building trust around your products and services. Consumers are more likely to trust a peer review or recommendation from friends and family than advertising alone. Accordingly, 92% of customers trust earned media, such as recommendations from friends and family, above all other forms of advertising (Nielsen, 2012).
Similarly, 70% of global consumers indicated they trust online customer reviews above marketing messages directly from the brand itself. This is why it is important to connect consumers with other people who have had positive experiences or ideas of what a brand means to them.
Online communities are also a great way to give consumers the role of brand ambassador. Experts now agree that "brands are becoming more like people and people are more like brands" (Salesforce, 2014). This essentially refers to the fact that consumers who like or support certain companies are more likely to talk positively about the companies; whereas deterred consumers are likely to voice their disappointment in this era of social media. They can become spokespeople and enjoy giving advice and guidance to others about the brands they interact with; at the same time, brands have an opportunity to hear what is missing (in real-time) from the negative feedback.
If that interaction is there and brands are listening, they can hear their customers' voices and act on what they are saying. This demonstrates to the customer that their opinions are valued and therefore their relationship with the brand is also valued, which builds stronger relationships between consumers and companies. The emotional bond that forms and links the consumer to your company is what helps with engagement and can be the key to increasing loyalty.
Factors to consider when building an online community
As with all research projects and new tools, there are a few things to consider before diving in.
Online communities are unlike other market research methods, due to their inherent flexibility. Consumers are able to log in at a time that suits them and are not compelled to spend a dictated amount of time completing surveys or engaging in discussions.
While this is beneficial in terms of encouraging participation, it can lead to certain challenges. If every consumer is choosing the time of day that best suits them, it is harder to guarantee completion timeframes or to have any one time for the numbers needed in a discussion. Fortunately, this can be easily overcome by pushing out reminders and invitations for particular discussions - similar to a focus group call to action but without the travel and large outlay of time.
Additionally, rather than trying to find hours of time for a panel discussion or phone call, research participants can complete a bite-sized survey in the spare moments they have. By utilising a few questions at a time, brands and researchers can achieve immediate insight into important subjects.
If the customer is left thinking "that was easy", they will be more likely to complete another, and another, contributing to an ongoing relationship with your brand and an offering of opinions. Engaged consumers want to share their thoughts - you just need to provide the right platform.
Research strategies need to adapt alongside the consumer in order to achieve effective engagement and encourage loyalty. With online communities growing in popularity around the globe, there are many reasons why researchers and brands are getting involved. Connecting consumers to each other and companies via an online research community can bolster loyalty and help you make your company indispensable, so get involved or be left behind.