Why Responsible Innovation Marks the Future of Online Communities

Heather Wendlandt

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    These days, in the supersonic speedy realm we live in, it seems everything is focused on speed and profitability, and the human factor has become an actual subject we have to call out. In my opinion, this also applies to the insight industry. Now is the time, we take a step back and have a conversation about how the insights industry can formulate a responsible path forward to catapult us into the future that is focused on the subject we love to study the most: human behaviours! For all of the various methodologies in the Insights realm, my expertise is among online communities, which will be the focus of today’s blog. I will be exploring how are we as an industry doing when it comes to responsible innovation in insights communities? What does this even mean and why does it matter today?

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    In an era obsessed with instancy and profitability, we sometimes forget the human factor and the responsible side of innovation, when in reality it's this that is the future of online communities.

    First, let’s start out with a definition of what this even means: responsible innovation is defined as "a process that seeks to promote creativity and opportunities that are socially desirable and undertaken in the public interest." In the insights industry, it’s what makes online research and online communities better for all; for the participants, for brands, and for researchers.

    Why is it important that innovation in both technology and community management take these considerations into account – and not just focus on what makes research faster? Why does this matter for the future?

    Insight Communities and Innovation: A History

    First off, let’s explore what the new innovations are in the world of insight communities. In 2008, I was a part of my first community project that included several hundred participants and a platform made up of widgets. The software was clunky, difficult to set up and manage, and also a hassle for participants to use. Another issue was the lack of real qualitative tools, as the community had a members section, quick polls, news widget, but we had to connect to surveys and qualitative tools outside of the platform. Of course, this was some time ago and the world of communities has changed a great deal since.

    In the early 2010’s, insight communities really started to grow up. More competitors hit the market and the model of a twelve-month community with 200 to 300 people started to be challenged. For example, the cost was so lofty for the ongoing communities, that the creation of “pop-up” communities really started to take hold in the industry. These were a week to a month long qualitative focused communities.

    On the opposite side of the scale, there were “panels” that called themselves “communities” with thousands of people doing high-volume quantitative surveys; these panels ran without the focus on building relationships with the respondents and the members themselves connecting with each other due to the sheer size of the sample and the limited time they had available to conduct the research. The desire for researchers to get more data and faster became paramount to the success of the communities or panels.

    Nowadays, communities still widely vary in size, scope, and purpose, but the tools and software that exists these days allows for more of a seamless integrated community experience for the brands and the customers by way of integrating qualitative and quantitative tools in the same portal. 

    This has been in my opinion the most important innovation in this space, since these days, quant surveys are not enough to tell what is really going on with consumers. It’s so important to dive deeper and understand the emotions and context surrounding people’s decisions and behaviours, or you just don’t get to see the whole picture.

    I get that brands want to access consumers and get answers in hours and not days, and while this is certainly possible for community platforms through tools like quick polls and open polls and surveys, it isn’t necessarily the most fun and engaging for the participants, and the brand misses out on the nuggets of truth hiding in a qualitative project. 

    Managing Future Innovation

    This leads me to the next part of the blog, about how we manage these communities as insights professionals. In the beginning, managing the communities or panels were all about building relationships and engaging on longer and more time-consuming projects. These days, we are being pushed to be hyper-agile, which I am going to define as providing data within hours/same day instead of days or weeks. We have seen that panel companies are struggling to keep out professional respondents and cheaters because of the speed needed to get answers from panellists in this hyper-agile environment, which in turn has ended up harming the quality of our data.

    The same can be said about communities that are only focused on agile research purposes. In other words, when brands and agencies only care about the bottom line and the fact that the CEO can get an answer in a few hours, one has to question the quality of that data and also the experience of the panellist/community member. I believe that to get real meaningful data requires a combo of both qualitative and quantitative, and that by rushing this process, it will end up cutting out quality controls, well-thought through research designs, and in the end, turn off respondents and consumers to the brand that is so desperate to learn about their customers.

    The most successful communities are ones where the brand and researcher are both involved in the conception and execution. By getting a deeper understanding of the overall business problems and objectives, the researcher is able to design an experience that elevates everyone involved in the project.

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    How do we innovate responsibly? From a development perspective, we should ask each tool, technique, and innovation if it's a development in the best interest of everyone involved in the research experience.

    By taking the time to engage participants in different ways besides a quick poll or a survey, the participant ends up having a better-quality experience, and therefore, contributes on a deeper level to the success of the community. Not to mention, in a branded environment, that plays out with a sense of deeper loyalty to the brand itself, which in turn generates more revenue for the brand. Isn’t it better to create a bunch of brand loyalists versus a bunch of fatigued respondents that are in it for the points or money versus fulfilment and connection? 

    The Future of Online Insight Communities

    It is so vital that as the industry continues to use communities, that we do so from a human perspective.  From a development perspective, we should be asking if what we are developing is in the public best interest. This will only serve to benefit us as human beings and is quite frankly the responsible thing to do.

    We are at an intersection right now, and the course we choose will have long lasting effects in the future, so I am lobbying for thinking past speed and short term profitability on their own accord, and advocating making more responsible technological advances, because in the end, we will be architecting an Insights Realm that will benefit everyone on so many levels.

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