The Hidden Army

The digital revolution is providing ample opportunity for brands to encourage dialogue in order to understand their customers better, finds Lucy Fisher.

Market research budgets may be dwindling, but that’s no excuse for a lack of insight. More than ever – and in more ways than ever – brands need to keep consumers on-side.

Brands are turning to the web to initiative conversations rather than relying solely on traditional offline focus groups. Many are finding the online world a cost effective method of gleaning information while consumers can log in their own time making it a convenient way to gather information.

More than 60% of Fortune 1000 companies with websites will have some form of community that can be used for marketing purposes by 2010, predicts a recent Gartner report. Brands are recognising that there’s both a greater need and a wider opportunity to attract and engage customers online.

In many cases, these online alternatives are more fruitful, in part because they are more genuine. Doron Meyassed, managing director of Promise Communities explains: “Nike has communities of fans, and [as a result can afford to conduct] almost no research; and Google, too, uses consumer feedback for research. Thousands give feedback – because they want to. They want to help them be better.”

Experts also claim that, despite evidence to the contrary, many brands remain sceptical about what they term “online qual”. Andy Barker, head of qualitative at YouGov, says he’s a “convert” after 20 years’ experience of “classic face-to-face”. “Some still don’t entertain the idea,” he says. “There’s a tendency for people to think the research will be more superficial if it’s done online, but in my experience it needn’t be.”

Barker believes that too many companies are entrenched, thinking they don’t have time to innovate. He speaks of “an enormous amount of habitual behaviour” in the market.

Those who are taking the leap, however, appear to be reaping the benefits. Nicky Jones, head of brand planning at Mirror Group, says that “Mirror Mouthpiece”, a branded online community which has been running for a year now as an extension of the reader panel, has driven significant benefits in terms of cost, turnaround times and access to opinion.

“It’s like having readers on tap, drip-feeding insight,” she says. “It hasn’t supplanted any conventional qualitative research that we do offline, but it’s key for us now. It’s definitely part of our budget that I’d defend.”

Derek Eccleston, head of research at eDigital Research, which hosts the platform for Mirror Group, says that many other brands are also hoping leverage the benefits of online communities. “In the last six months we’ve gone from hosting three to four communities to a dozen,” he says.

There is a new level of “openness” on the part of clients as to the benefits of online according to Graeme Lawrence, business development director at Virtual Surveys. He adds: “This used to be almost a dirty phrase in market research,” he says, adding: “But now, partly thanks to this growth in online communities, it’s reconfigured itself. Clients are waking up to the possibilities inherent in allowing a conversation to breathe over time.”

The trend isn’t restricted to any one sector, either. “In terms of the types of clients using these methods, it’s definitely more mainstream now,” says Rose Tomlins, associate director, GfK Qualitative, GfK NOP. “It’s not just the technology clients who are considering it.”

Danone’s yoghurt brand, Activia, for example, is currently conducting qualitative research online. Corinne Chant, marketing manager, says that a branded community has been created as “a first step and trial”. She explains: “We wanted to get under consumers’ skins, to understand them.”

Chant has been encouraged by the honesty of the consumers in the community. “I was quite surprised,” she says. “It adds another dimension. I thought we’d get more of the same but it did add an extra layer.”

So, far from being a poor relation to offline focus groups, many who have first-hand experience of such methods claim that online qualitative research via the creation of branded communities can create dialogue that is in some ways more authentic than its offline counterpart. Rollo McIntyre, head of consumer qualitative research at Ipsos MORI is one: “You can get more interesting, or surprising, emotions displayed online. Some people are liberated by being online and would be more cautious offline.”

Anonymity – whether perceived or real – plays its part here. YouGov’s Barker explains: “Because there’s less social interaction online, people tend to be less afraid of saying the wrong thing.”

“It’s also hard to dominate discussion – you can only type too much, in which case you’ll get left behind anyway,” he adds.

Online research methods can also make it easier to reach audiences further afield, or niche groups, and to broach sensitive issues. GfK’s Tomlins says that the initial attraction of online methodologies for the research group was the ability to get to new audiences, to widen the net. Later, she realised that respondents could be more outspoken online, too – even those who may be timid in real life.

Yet, as with everything, online methods have their drawbacks. These tend to be similar to those faced in the offline research world. You have to ask the right questions, and you need to know how to interpret responses, whilst being mindful of the mode you are operating in, whether digital or otherwise.

Fortunately, improvements in technology are helping to join the dots between the on-and offline worlds. Mobile telephones, with in-built cameras and video recorders, for example, mean that consumers can get in touch however and wherever they please. According to Tomlins: “People can record their lives in so many ways – you can tap into people’s lives unobtrusively.”

At GfK, she says, clients are using online diaries in order to get to know respondents, and asking them to do task-based activities on the web on a weekly basis. “Before, it was all on paper. So we had to send out the forms and rely on people to fill them in. Now, you know immediately when they’ve responded and you can email them and ask them to log in.”

Such increased functionality, and a marrying of qual and quant research online, often via branded communities, has led to a blurring of boundaries between what have been seen as separate disciplines in the past. According to Virtual Survey’s Lawrence: “There will be more muddying of the waters. Research needs to fit with the Web 2.0 context. People don’t necessarily want to go and visit a room above a shop and answer questions these days.”

If a brand wants to assess non-verbal responses by looking at people’s physical reactions before running an advertising campaign then a traditional face-to-face methodology may be the best approach. But, used in combination, qualitative, quantitative, on- and offline methodologies can give you a far more rounded view of your consumers and what they want.

An online branded community is one way of doing this – and one which may help to rationalise your research budget at the same time. There’s an army of consumers out there willing to help if only brands could hear them. Those which don’t listen may well find themselves at an impasse.

Case study: Prudential

Prudential made its first foray into online qualitative research via a branded community earlier this year. Matthew Key, research manager, says that this decision was both due to the cost savings it was likely to offer, versus traditional research, and also as a reaction to a new initiative from financial services regulator, the FSA, entitled “Treating Customers Fairly” (TCF).

Prudential sent invitations to customers in its databases, and invited non-customers from other sources via lists. The resultant group was 50% customers and 50% non-customers, and focused on the brand’s core target market – the retirement market. Having launched this February, almost 2,000 people have now signed up.
“We set out what we expected of the community – their time and opinions -and told them what they would get back,” says Key. “They are involved in the strategic issues we are facing. They know their feedback will have an influence and we show them the results they are having.”

Prudential has discovered many benefits to moving parts of its qualitative research online. “It gives you the ability to reach broader geographical areas and you are seen to be listening and taking action. This creates ‘brand warmth’,” says Key. “We are planning to keep it running and potentially to expand it to the advisor community.”

Key has also found the ability to go back and ask for more information to be very beneficial: “Offline focus groups and one-to-one research have their benefits, but an online community allows you to go back to that same group of people again and again. It’s true co-creation with your customers.”

Prudential is implementing changes to its literature and website on the back of findings. “The community is also giving us feedback about advice. This will have a big impact on brand positioning and potentially any new advice models we may launch,” adds Key.

Box out two: Tips for managing an online branded community

– Don’t let your community become little more than a noticeboard: regularly create new and engaging information and activities
– Tell consumers how their feedback is being used
– Ensure branding is clear – and visible
– Be willing to cede control and to let consumers take the lead
– A closed or private community will need “social glue” – choose people carefully
– Employ multimedia elements to add to the overall experience and to increase accessibility and convenience, as well as depth
– To really get under the skin of consumers, consider asking respondents to blog on a certain topic
– Wherever appropriate, action findings and be seen to be doing so

Box out three: View from the US

In the states, adoption of communities to generate qualitative insights is “pretty high”, according to Debi Kleiman, vice president, product marketing, at Communispace. She adds: “Before, we did need to explain the benefits”. It was a more of an evangelical sale. But brands understand the power of communities now.”

Kleiman notes that, in the wake of the financial crisis, “a whole lot more” financial institutions expressed interest in building communities. “They found they were out of touch,” she says. “Market research from two years ago just wasn’t relevant any more – things were changing too quickly.”

Steve Howe, CEO at competitor Passenger agrees: “There’s no industry that needs to repair relationships with customers more than the financial services industry. Offline focus groups are often not quick enough. A telephone survey may take six to eight weeks. The world can change a lot in that time.”

Passenger is headquartered in LA and has another office in New York. It has plans to open a UK office. According to Howe, 43% of its customers have reduced the number of offline focus groups they do as a result of creating online branded communities. The other half use it as a supplement to offline techniques.

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