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Tom Wormald Dr Tom Wormald - Research Director, ICM Digital

Tom joined ICM in April 2011 and is part of the Digital research team, heading the online research communities practice. Since joining he has developed complex digital research platforms for clients including Aviva, Sainsbury’s, Vodafone and HSJ/EMAP to help them leverage social web functionality and deliver evidence-focused answers to their questions.

Read the full biography here.

The Art of the Impossible:
Can you really build an online research community?

By Dr Tom Wormald, ICM - 20th June, 2012

The short answer is no; and yet, the claims that you can are frequently and increasingly bandied about. They are at best misleading and at worst can undermine what we can achieve as researchers.

Why can’t you build an online community? Well, to answer that, you first need to understand what a community is. For the sake of argument, and for the purpose of this article, we need a common definition. It seems appropriate, as we are talking about online communities, to turn to the online and collaboratively written encyclopaedia Wikipedia: Community: a group of interacting people, living in some proximity (i.e. in space, time, or relationship). Community usually refers to a social unit larger than a household that shares common values and has social cohesion...

This has always been the case for humans – we are ‘naturals’ when it comes to bonding together in groups that we define as meaningful. But the advent of the internet - and particularly the social web – has changed the game. The things by which communities were derived in the offline world – sharing information, interacting and socialising, observing each other and so on – are now nearly as easily accessible online as they are offline. As Wikipedia continues: Since the advent of the Internet, the concept of community has come to be associated with less focus on geographical limitation, as people can now gather virtually in an online community and share common interests regardless of physical location.

It is this which has led to the mistaken belief that online communities can be ‘built’. Online communities do exist, don’t misunderstand me. But rather than assuming they are ‘built,’ my point is that we need clarity on how human communities grow and develop in general to properly understand how ‘online’ communities might work. The better we can understand how any human community – whether online OR offline – evolves organically, and the better we can know how and when to use ‘community’ as a tool for carrying out effective research and enquiry.


At this point I should really nail my colours to the mast and state that I’m an anthropologist by training. This will probably go some way towards explaining my thinking.

Countless studies by anthropologists and other social scientists raise important questions about the way in which researchers are thinking and talking about the possibilities that online communities offer. Researchers can learn from these to further develop their own understanding of a community. For it is only by truly understanding what a community is and then getting to know how it operates – as each one is different – that researchers can glean the most useful information and insights, or decide whether community is the right approach in the first place.

To begin with, anthropologists consider that people are constantly moving in and out of different sets of relationships – and different perceived ‘communities’. These multiple associations – some fleeting – fundamentally shape who we think we are and how we interrelate. Notably, as a collection of common values a community isn’t a tangible thing. You just need to think about the idea of 'Britishness' to appreciate that this definition of a community exists only in as much as its members believe in it. And you only have to consider the difference between a ‘Cockney’ and a ‘Geordie’ to see how members of what is apparently one community will actually articulate it – and their own derived identity – in very different ways.

This works in a similar way for what we call 'brand culture'. By this we mean the way in which a brand manifests itself through its communications and other behaviour, and in turn how its values are received and interpreted within a social group. In short – another way of thinking about how people relate to brands, focusing on the social and cultural elements they are built on.

Brand culture exists only in as much as people believe in or disbelieve it based on how closely aligned it is with their beliefs and experiences. Either way, their relationship with a brand will go some way towards informing their identity – expressing who they are and what they believe in – and the brand culture. The point I’m making here is that we don’t just define ourselves in terms of things we like and want to be associated with. Anti-globalisation protestors, for example, are defined by their dislike for certain brands and as such they still have a relationship with them and are defined partly in terms of their relationship with them, even if that is a negative one. Through our different associations and relationships we engage in a constant process of active construction of identities – ours and those of the people, organisations and brands we interrelate with.

As researchers, what we do need to grasp is that it doesn’t matter to the consumer whether their interaction with the brand takes place on or offline or both. The online / offline distinction is far more the product of methodological and business planning factors within the Market Research Industry than it is a reflection of a substantive ‘difference’ in the ‘real world.’ In fact, the formation of identities, communities and brand culture knows no boundaries. It is seamless.

Far more important than understanding behaviour as either online or offline, we might be better considering in much more detail how interactions between brands and consumers that take place online cross over and affect those that take place offline – and of course vice versa. And that when it comes to choosing whether to use digital research tools or more ‘traditional’ methods, it is about choosing the right tools for the job – and combining the two to obtain the bigger picture.

Having highlighted the organic nature of individual and collective identities, in order to really drive home my point that you can’t build a community, it is perhaps easiest to highlight what you can do. To start with you build or create a particular online space or environment that you think will appeal to and enthuse a certain group of respondents on the basis of their existing relationship to a brand – whether that relationship is currently online or offline. And you can provide a group of respondents with the tools and stimulus to facilitate communication based on their interests and behaviours with the aim of stimulating a sense of community among participants. A good illustration of where ICM got these elements right was in a recent project for Emap’s Health Service Journal (HSJ). Tasked with researching readers’ appetite for an online forum, ICM worked with HSJ to create an online space – essentially a test site of the proposed forum – where they could invite specific groups of readers to review and freely discuss content of interest to them in their work, and where they were also encouraged to work with each other to solve particular challenges.


You can also develop a plan for inviting and rewarding individual respondents to take part in online conversations and activities that fit within their perception of the ‘host’ brand. As such, the way in which you incentivise and reward respondents is a powerful tool if pitched right. Contrary to the commonly held assumption that online researchers either have to choose between extrinsic and intrinsic incentives, we believe that the right combination of the two can actually help researchers construct meaningful relationships on behalf of the brand. The important thing when it comes to constructing a programme of encouragement and incentivisation is to get the balance right between what the client wants and participant interest. The less control a client is prepared to relinquish, the more likely they are to have to use extrinsic or purely transactional incentives like money to encourage participation and the less engaged respondents are likely to be.

Ultimately, through creating an online space, using online tools to facilitate a dialogue and the right balance of incentives you can help client organisations to build the kind of meaningful relationships with respondents that will help to grow a community.

A great example of this is the Aviva Live community of ‘expert advisers’. Over the past year or so, ICM has worked with Aviva to come up with a new way to carry out online research that would allow them to bridge the gap between research and engagement, and build relationships with customers. The initial aim was to invite customers to take part in online discussion activities to help Aviva gather insight where budgets, timescales or the sensitivity of topics might normally have meant ad hoc research was not possible.

However, it quickly became clear that the forum offered an opportunity to develop a group of ‘expert consumers’ who are knowledgeable and influential about financial services, under the umbrella of Aviva’s Brand Culture. As such, in a two-way process of exchanging information and opinion, Aviva works with the members of Aviva Live to grow their literacy in financial services, and in return they share their thoughts as ‘expert’ consumers on a range of business issues.

It’s a genuinely two-way relationship. Aviva has used the online forum to get to know respondents personally and as a space where they can have serious discussions and speak openly about the very personal world of financial issues. And Aviva’s reward is respondents who really want to participate. Something which is evidenced by the forum having more than 200 contributing members and a survey return rate of around 60%. Participants remained active for longer than a year and ended up by advising Aviva about areas it should be researching, which was the ultimate mark of success for this project.

Building an online research community really is a misnomer. There are lots of fantastic things we can do as researchers to create spaces and provide the tools, content and incentives that will encourage people to debate issues online and supply us with that all important nugget of insight. And, if we get it right, this group of people might evolve into a community.


Tom Wormald

Comments on this article


Want to share your thoughts...?

Excellent article, Tom. Really interesting. Agree with it completely but would like to add my belief that on-line communities come together organically because they have something to gain. Very much the early humans came together to form farms and settlements.

The challenge that most brands trying to create a community don't yet get is that they have to deliver something of value to that community over and above a sense of belonging.

Most brands think this is a matter of just posting funny pictures or jokes. It's not. It's about things that really effect a person interested enough to look in. As you say, it's about getting their input on their experiences, future directions they would like the brand to take etc.

If the brand can kick start a common thread that resonates, the community will take it up and seek out new members to join it. Once communications are ignited between members of the 'community' and the brand continues to inject more value into it, then you have a true long term, value based, loyal community.

I've been spending years now debating this with myself and others. Most of the time I find myself arguing with myself in the shower. However 9 months ago, I decided that I would create a solution for this and i am ij the process of giving birtyh to #IAMcommerce.

If you want to know more or if indeed you want to meet for a coffee so that I can understand my mistakes, please do make contact. I am based in Piccadilly.

+44 7770 833 999

P.S. If you get through to iamcommerce.com, please ignore it. I have redirected it by mistake to an old version. The site is still being developed prior to company launch.....

Prem Gyani, #IAMcommerce

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