One of the unique things about online communities is the nature of the relationship between the moderator/researcher and the participant. We talk to our members daily, get to know them personally over time and form close bonds which means that they become confident, open, willing and able to think more freely.
Because they have time to think about the issues we are discussing and can comment as they live within their real context, they raise issues that are important TO THEM rather than being constrained by the framework in which we have presented an idea. In this way we are given invaluable access into their actual behaviour, motivations, needs and attitudes, by allowing the consumer to set the agenda, rather than starting from a base of what we think consumers are interested in.
The long-term nature of communities also has other advantages. We can turn to the consumer at every step of the process from idea initiation and screening, concept development and refinement, through to continuous evaluation of revisions to comply with internal capabilities that occur as a result of feedback to ensure the product stays on target with consumer needs.
Instead of a quick 5-minute assessment, members have time to digest and reflect on the ideas within their usual thinking time and space, which may be over breakfast, in the shower, on the way to work or waiting in the car to pick up the kids as they scoff their ritual bar of chocolate. What this ensures is a much better quality evaluation and deeper insights.
There is also plenty of scope to take an ethnographic approach, tasking community members to complete online diaries, take photos or video footage and write blogs. One of the special things about our communities is that we know each member so well that we are able to virtually hand pick them to meet specific criteria for a longer term or targeted task.