According to the Fall 2014 Greenbook Research Industry Trends report, marketing research online communities have reached mainstream usage and consideration levels. This is not surprising. At Bellomy, it seems we’re in constant client discussions regarding online insight communities or other social research platforms. In these conversations, many clients have expressed concerns regarding the best way to build a community. These concerns tend to fall into two categories: uncertainty and disillusionment.

Uncertainty. For starters, clients building their first (or second or third) insight community are often unsure about the best approach to take. Questions range from who should be in the community to which platform to use to community size to whether it should be full-service or DIY and so on. These tend to be questions about what we, at Bellomy, call community mechanics. While it’s important that a community have good mechanics, these should not be the first questions asked. Rather, they should come after answering larger, more important questions. More on this in a bit.

Disillusionment. With growing frequency, clients come to us disillusioned with their existing community. When asked why, the answer often comes back around to value and expectations. For one reason or another, the community fails to deliver the expected value.

Define Purpose from the Beginning. We have found that addressing both uncertainty and disillusionment typically boils down to one thing: purpose or lack thereof. Purpose is all about the mission of the insight community; its reason for being. It answers the why. We find communities to be most successful when their purpose is inspired by company strategy.

Lacking purpose, how can you know what to build let alone why you’re building it? For example, purpose for the community could be to reduce internal workload so that the marketing research team can elevate its focus to more strategic, forward-looking and prescriptive thinking. Another purpose of the community could be to better understand the full customer lifecycle. Another could be to gain insight on how to create a more consistent customer experience across all channels and touchpoints. The list goes on.

Without a clear sense of purpose, insight communities tend to get built and used in an ad hoc fashion. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. Success is left to chance. Often, when we ask about purpose for the insight community, a common answer is time and budget. Companies want faster, less expensive access to their customers. However, faster and less expensive translate to goals, not purpose. Done right, goals should be aligned with the purpose, to ensure the insight community is delivering on its purpose.

Thus, we advise clients: before investing another dollar into building or resurrecting an insight community, you must first define its purpose. With the purpose of the community defined, you now have the context needed to discuss community mechanics, such as size, recruitment and target audience. You can also roadmap how to engage with the community. Uncertainty gives way to an informed plan. With purpose, you can also establish goals and milestones. This allows you to measure how well the insight community is delivering against its purpose—whether or not it’s delivering the expected value, and what you can do about it. Disillusionment gives way to informed action.

In a subsequent post, we’ll outline how this can be put this into action. Stay tuned!