Will Private Online Communities Transform Qualitative Research?
My question to my readers is this: are MROCs the next big thing in market research, and will they eventually take measurable share form traditional qualitative research?
It is an old story.
A new mode of research comes along, and the existing research world gives it a giant raspberry.
It happened when phone pushed out face-to-face interviews for quant in the US in the 70's (What about selection bias! It can't possibly be as projectable!). It happened in the late 90's and early 2000's with online panels (What about selection bias?! What about professional survey takers?! What about response bias and poorly constructed panels?!).
While many of these objections have a lot of merit, in the end, the new modes took a major amount of share in the quantitative research market (especially in the US). Why? Because they are much faster and much cheaper. Given this, many researchers and research buyers decided that they could live with even some of the well founded objections. As they gain steam, the research industry itself turns to remedying some of the more blatant issues. That is why we now see all sorts of online panel scrubbing measures such as Peanut Labs Optimus and MarketTools TrueSample approaches. (For more about new panel hygiene approaches, see "Is the Long Panel Quality Nightmare Over," at http://www.forrester.com/go?docid=45754.)
Until now, most of the major changes have been in the QUANTITATIVE research space. Qualitative research has pretty much been trucking along with traditional focus groups, individual depth interviews, and ethnographic research. It has gained very little from the economic leverage that the Internet has delivered to quantitative research. At least, that has been the case until the last few years.
Over the past few years, we have seen the growing presence of Private Online Communities. While many are set up for viral marketing purposes, a subset of them is focused specifically on market research, and I therefore call them MROCs (Market Research Online Communities). (For some more details of the dynamics of MROC, see "Will Web 2.0 Transform Market Research" at http://www.forrester.com/go?docid=44159.)
The company that really made a splash with these has been Communispace, who basically delivers a full service model. They will design, manage, moderate, and analyze an online community for their clients, as well as provide any other needed ancillary services. Many large companies have found this to be a very attractive model. It costs a lot, but it also delivers an intense insight engine that includes not only surrogates for traditional research modes (planned, moderated, group discussions, and things such as ideation exercises), it also allows insights to be gathered from the massive amounts of unmoderated discussions that occur between members. Users of such communities almost universally agree that it is this latter capability that often gives the most insights. Stories abound of major retailers who discovered a whole new segment to market to, or a major hotel chain that saw opportunity in addressing business traveler needs in a unique way, purely from unexpected insights gained from these unmoderated member discusssions.
If it costs a lot ($200k-$300k per group), why do companies find this model attractive compared with traditional modes of qualitative research? One key is capacity. A typical focus group project that needs to be national (or multi-national) in scope, can take months. Its cost can also easliy top $100k for one project. An MROC can run several qualitative exercises a week, all year round, plus all of the unmoderated insights it generates. For large organizations that run a lot of qualitative research already, the economic argument for supplanting some qualitative research with an MROC is very compelling. Large enterprises may start out by testing the waters with MROCs, but once they get a taste of how compelling being able to get lots of results in a week or two is, the logical outcome is to start shifting some resources from traditional qualitative research to MROCs.
If MROCs only consisted of the full service Communispace model, they would have an interesting place in the market place among large enterprises who already do a lot of qualitative research. They would find it challenging to swim downstream to companies who do not yet do significant amounts of qualitative research or who fall into the medium or small enterprise category. The price of admission ($200k-$300k per year) would be too much of a barrier.
There are, however, several self service hosted MROC plateform vendors who are aiming to make a market by allowing companies far cheaper access if they do some of the work themselves. These vendors include HiveLive, MarkeTools, Vovici, Passenger, Vision Critical, GlobalParks and Jive. Some of these are pure software platforms (Jive) Others will provide services such as moderation if needed by their communities (MarketTools, Passenger, and Vision Critical). Still others are creating a host of traditional market research company allies who can provide services to their clients as needed (HiveLive).
The net result? Far cheaper access to MROC platforms for those who want to ramp up (or ramp down) their support needs.
Pushing this trend alone, several of the online survey tool vendors (such as Confirmit, Vovici, MarketTools, and GlobalParks) are coming to market with MROCs by building community platforms into their survey tool offering. This makes having an MROC a natural extension for those clients who already are using their online survey tools.
And stay tuned for my upcoming Forrester document concerning self-service MROCs!