Engaged Research

Written by Steve Thompson • Posted on May 24, 2013
This is the first in a short series of blog posts on the subject of Engaged Research. We’re starting with “Why is engagement important?” and “How to better engage participants?”. The next in the series will tackle the role of a Research Moderator evolving into a Research Community Manager. We’ll finish with our thoughts about where the focus on engagement in research can lead. First some context Having a background of implementing literally hundreds of online communities for a myriad of business uses, we’re in a unique position of being able to look at research communities from a different angle to most agencies and solution providers. In business applications (often marketing-led), one community goal typically sits above all others: engagement. A lot of effort goes into building technology that stimulates engagement, designing and adding community topics and using content that deeply engages members. Around that, the most successful business communities have strong Community Managers that work to create active, lively interactions that sustain and grow member engagement. Not to mention the need to track engagement as a measure of community health and demonstrate a ROI... After some of our early conversations with researchers in 2011, it seemed that the concept of “engagement” was nowhere near as important in research communities. At the time, we were asked many more questions about the types of activity that could be included in a study, whether response sharing could be disabled and what format the results could be exported in. In short, researchers wanted a community, but were struggling to know what to do with it or what it could really do for them. As a consequence, many fell back to familiar concepts from scripted bulletin boards and online quant research platforms that don’t rely on strong engagement. As this space continues to rapidly mature and research communities become more familiar, that’s starting to change. Why is engagement important? Engagement is the glue that holds a community together. Without a strong feeling of engagement, your research community will stagnate and ultimately fail. It’s like joining a party where everyone is uncomfortably silent and avoids each others gaze: you’re unlikely to feel engaged and will quickly and quietly leave. That rule certainly holds true in long-term research communities that have no defined end date. It’s important to continuously engage participants to sustain and draw value from the community and justify its perpetuation. That said, it’s also important to look at engagement as a measure of how involved participants are at any moment in time. The big idea with Recollective was (and still is) that participants who are highly engaged are much more likely to devote the time needed to complete every activity asked of them, contribute richer responses and perhaps even uncover some issues the researchers had no awareness of. How to better engage participants? A high level of engagement doesn’t just happen. Aim to engage participants through the research design, other participants, your research team, outcomes and the technology.
  • research design: mix up the activities with a varied blend of mobile and desktop work, text and multimedia questions, collaborative group tasks, competitive assignments, rewards, open debates, or even direct interaction with clients. Let participants tell a story by building a journey that they want to continue to the end. Then do it again.
  • other participants: the strongest communities are populated by people who share things in common. Let them discover and interact with each other to build relationships. If you’re recruiting for a study, try to factor that in and then let the participants know of those commonalities. It breaks the ice and helps them feel comfortable sharing more quickly.
  • your research team: don’t hide behind a virtual glass wall. Interact with participants, share your own experiences, show a human-face. Try adding webcam video introductions to activities, avoid usernames like “Admin1” or “Moderator”, provide encouragement and positive reinforcement. The more you put in, the more you get out.
  • outcomes: share what you learn. That might be disclosing the responses or a summary of them, you can even share your conclusions and ask the community to validate them, stimulating yet deeper insights and confidence. Best of all, nothing motivates more than knowing that one’s effort has made a difference (typically only possible in ongoing communities). Let your participants know what their contribution has done and they will likely be keen to repeat the experience.
  • technology: the best technology is the one nobody notices. It should be intuitive to use, have social features similar to consumer social networks and subtly encourage interaction and sharing between participants.
I purposefully haven’t included financial incentives in this list. They definitely have a role to play in online research and work well to stimulate direct responses to questions. But that’s not the same as building engagement within a community. Payment reinforces that participation is a burden and can sometimes be used to compensate for un-engaging research design. As such, it can’t be used to build engagement. If you’d like to talk about how Ramius and Recollective can help you build an engaged research community, give us a call or drop an email to me at sthompson@ramius.net.

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