A Guide to Research Communities

How & When to Leverage One

Download Now

Unearth the story of your customers. 

As a cornerstone of customer-centric organizations, communities genuinely empower internal teams to treat customers as stakeholders. These online environments are more than just a technology—they offer a strategic opportunity for your organization to forge ongoing connections with consumers. And when suitable, they can become an important touchpoint in your customers’ experience.

We welcome you to explore the opportunities that are only made possible when leveraging online research communities as a part of your customer-centric strategy.

Complete the form to download a PDF version of this guide, or keep scrolling to read.

Cover Graphic


A Guide to Research Communities: Determining when and how to deploy one

As organizations strive to better understand their customers and develop products that improve their lives, finding new ways to learn from them becomes essential. This requires more than point-in-time exercises—and allowing their voices to permeate the organization well beyond its call center. Many organizations have turned to research communities to enable this kind of feedback and insight. We don’t blame them, as we’ve witnessed the results firsthand with our clients since launching our first community with General Motors in 2005.

Below are a set of foundational questions that we’re happy to answer. Tucked between the lines are downloadable resources so you can delve deeper into topics of interest. If you’re still craving more as you read along, we’re here to talk live. Simply visit our connect page. We look forward to hearing from you!

What is a research community?

A research community is an online research environment that can act as a hub for all primary research activities. Sourced from either your customer lists or a recruited sample of prospective members that are invited to join, communities create a safe space for them to interact with each other and members of your organization.

What are the benefits of an online research community?

Oftentimes, organizations are drawn to research communities because of ROI, as they enable a type of “retained” solution to conducting research allowing for easy access to its members' voices. However, benefits extend well beyond monetary and time savings—providing an ongoing outlet for connection with target audiences who, over time, establish trust, resulting in richer information sharing and a sense of ownership from participants.

Gongos goes one step further with its Customer as a StakeholderTM Service Model

To support our mission to build reciprocal relationships between customers and corporations, our Customer as a Stakeholder Service Model enables organizations to get closer to customers, giving them a proverbial seat at the table and bringing them closer to stakeholders who in turn are able to build greater understanding and empathy, and allow that to influence decision-making.


Common Applications For Research Communities

Research communities can be utilized by one or more functions across your organization. Often, the greatest ROI is achieved when many teams interact with the community, each tapping into it as a source of customer understanding. Some organizations start small with one team building a community around focused goals, and have the option to grow it over time, as desired.

Common applications across organizational teams include:

  • Research/Insights: Bring forth target audience understanding and build empathy across the organization
  • Innovation: Infuse your target audience throughout the entire innovation process to inspire and pinpoint opportunity
  • Marketing: Develop and refine messaging and communications to ensure resonance and track performance post-launch
  • Brand: Track brand equity, explore brand stretch opportunities, and foster brand advocacy relationships
  • Customer Experience: Understand customer journeys, identify opportunity areas, and seek ways to enhance and create new experiences
  • Strategy: Engage executives directly with members to infuse customer-centric thinking throughout the organization
  • Employee Experience: Harness the voices of employees by empowering them to provide real-time insight into the customer experience, identify barriers, and co-create solutions


3 Things to Consider when Creating a Research Community

While research communities provide a powerful platform for many organizations, they aren’t right for all. Consider these core questions when determining if an online research community is right for you:

  • Does your organization embrace customer-centric strategies?
  • Do you have ongoing demand for human understanding and perspectives to drive decision making?
  • Are stakeholders on board/bought into the idea of a research community to fuel ongoing customer interactions?
  • Does you/your team/your organization have the resources to develop, maintain, and act on insights gleaned within a research community?

If your answers to one or more of the above questions are “yes,” exploring a research community likely makes sense for your organization.

DIY vs. Full-Service Research Communities

As you begin exploring, critically dissect the internal resources you have available—both in terms of capacity/bandwidth and skillsets to determine the right path forward, specifically when determining if a DIY or full-service research community makes sense for you. While DIY communities have some advantages—like providing maximum flexibility for your team—they require a large time investment to manage, and can be more time consuming than many internal teams have the capacity for. Alternatively, full-service research communities come with an external partner to manage the community day-to-day, as well as design research activities, freeing your team to focus on the strategic application of insights.

What's the Difference Between Panel and Communities? 

Additionally, as you start exploring communities, you may come across “panels” as well. While there are some similarities between panels and communities, remember that panels typically only provide one-way interaction (via surveys) to a pre-defined, profiled target audience, without the community site to allow for member-to-member interactions and deeper, qualitative interactions.


Considerations When Creating a Research Community

When you’re looking into creating an online research community, start by ensuring you understand your goals and anticipated use cases for the community. With that understanding, begin to sort through additional considerations:

Partnership Needs

Determine the level of support you will need—are you planning to create a DIY community (fully managed internally) or lean on an external partner to manage/run your community for you? Depending on your plans, customize your partnership vetting process to ensure you find the right partner(s) to best meet your needs.

Community Members

Consider use cases and the types of decisions the community will be used for to determine the appropriate community composition and size. Community members can be profiled and segmented, so you don’t have to choose just one type of target audience.

Branded vs. Blinded

Depending on your community’s member composition and the objectives, you can brand your community—revealing your organization to members—to build and enhance brand advocacy; or blind your community—not revealing your specific organization, and rather focusing the community on the category—to prevent potential brand bias within interactions.


Engagement Strategies: The Key To Community Success

While it may be obvious that engagement strategies need to be planned for and implemented to sustain a healthy community over time, purposeful engagement should start much earlier—as soon as you’ve decided to build a community. And engagement needs to be accounted for both externally (with community members) and internally (end-clients).

When planning engagement strategies, ensure you're designing along the entire community lifecycle, including:

  1. Vision

  2. Onboard

  3. Build Connections

  4. Continuous Evolution 

Strategies should be customized by audience, and should consider these key elements to contribute to the community’s success:

  • People: Nurture human interaction, evoke empathy, and foster reciprocity within the community
  • Process: Create repeatable and scalable correspondence and research processes
  • Technology: Leverage the technology-based platform for efficiencies and to meet consumers where they are

Member Engagement

As the lifeblood of the community, take the attention and care necessary to establish and nurture relationships with members to build strong connections and deeper insights— resulting in a more rewarding experience for you and them.

Examples of member engagement strategies include:

  • Moderator meet-and-greets
  • Always-on forums for members to start their own conversations
  • Share-back newsletters
  • Role-flipping, rewarding highly engaged members to be “moderator for a day”

Stakeholder Engagement

Internal stakeholder demand and engagement is key to a sustainable research community and is often overlooked beyond initial planning and research requests. While initial buzz and excitement about the community is likely to be strong, continuous and evolving strategies are necessary to ensure stakeholders see the value in the community for its entire lifecycle. When thinking about how to engage your stakeholders, think about treating them as customers to achieve true community ROI.

Examples of stakeholder engagement strategies include:

  • Community roadmaps and learning plans to ensure higher-order objectives link to strategic company goals
  • Platform onboarding to encourage community member interactions (as appropriate)
  • Identify and empower community champions to share their enthusiasm for the community and the value it provides them and the organization
  • Newsletters to share success stories and insights across stakeholders to spark new ideas and demonstrate ROI


Socializing Insights for Stakeholder Impact

While creating and executing against a research community plan is essential for the community’s success, make sure to not lose sight of the desired outcomes. By creating and executing a thoughtful plan, you’ll be collecting rich insights—but they’ll prove futile if the organization doesn’t act upon them.

Socializing insights in effective ways and following through to ensure the socialization of the insights leads to action are just as important as community health.

When packaging insights for socialization, ensure the format meets your end stakeholders' needs. Key considerations include:

  • Format/medium: PowerPoint decks are often used, but before simply defaulting to them, consider if this is the right format to communicate based on the insights and audience
  • Mode of communication: While it can be tempting to send off a deliverable via email, many times a conversation or presentation adds helpful context that could otherwise be overlooked
  • Style and tone: Consider how the end audience best receives information, as well as considering how the end audience is likely to react to the information (will this be a surprise? good news? bad news?) and align your deliverables’ style and tone to match their preferences and the situation
  • Level of detail: Similar to matching style and tone, consider the level of detail that your audience needs to know, based on the types of decisions they are going to make

Beyond final deliverables to share insights, consider if/what situations are appropriate to bring stakeholders along the entire research journey—encouraging them to participate throughout the process, allowing them to become more personally invested in the research and outcomes.

close chapters modal

Take your learning with you.

Fill out the form below to receive your PDF version of this guide.

Cover Graphic