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5 tips to keep participants engaged in online research communities

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

In this article, we are referring to short-term, intensive, asynchronous online communities that come together for around 3-5 days to answer a particular research question. We have been running these communities since 2015, have involved over 2000 participants in our projects, and have learned a few tips and tricks about keeping people engaged along the way.

1. Make sure you have the right participants

Before you even begin, check if the approach will work for your target audience. Whilst we have used this model successfully with many, many audiences (including children) we would never recommend it for time-poor individuals who can’t commit to engaging with the research over a number of days. So, if your audience is a senior level executive or a school leader – we’d recommend exploring alternative methodologies.

2. Manage their expectations - then stick to it!

It is important to set-out at recruitment stage exactly what is needed. If you expect 30 minutes of their time for 3 days between 3th – 5th October – then be clear on that in the recruitment communications. Let them know that there may be follow-up questions from a moderator, and if they will be required to upload photos or share video, tell them this too.

And then whatever expectations you have set during recruitment – stick to them when designing the research, otherwise any goodwill can rapidly evaporate.

3. Create a community atmosphere

Online communities can sometimes feel a bit sterile – like a series of one-to-one conversations with the moderator rather than a group discussion, but there are ways around this. Some platforms incorporate technology to ‘upvote’ other people’s ideas, for example, but we have found just asking participants to interact can really help.

For example, include instructions such as: once you have replied, go back and comment on three other posts. This can really help to start getting participants interacting. If you have a large panel, split them into segments of around 10 people so that participants do not become overwhelmed with too many responses and are more likely to ‘get to know’ their small sub-group of fellow participants.

I have had communities where participants have asked me to keep it running for them after the research has finished, they have so enjoyed talking to other people who share their concerns and interests (that’s not possible, by the way, but I believe some have swopped contact details…).

4. Make it fun (but check their idea of fun)!

Most online platform technologies offer a range of task types. It helps to vary the tasks and offer participants different ways of engaging – whether that’s a mini-poll, a card-sorting exercise, or creating a moodboard, as well as providing longer written answers.

But whilst one person might love to get their creative juices flowing with a moodboard, for others it might be their idea of hell. If your platform offers question routing technology, I’ve found it can work well to give people a choice, such as: we are now going to ask you for your ideas about X, would you prefer to write your answer, or flex your creativity by creating a moodboard of images? This helps to avoid drop-outs if they come across a task they really don’t want to do.

5. Make them feel involved and listened to

I once took part in a similar panel for a retailer (I wanted to experience the ‘other side’ for a change). I dutifully answered the questions, did the tasks, and uploaded photos of my soft furnishings. And then… nothing! I never saw any other participant contributions, or had any follow-up questions. It felt like talking into a void.

We make a point of replying to at least the very first post of every single participant to welcome them into the community and thank them for taking part. It sets the scene early on that there is a human on the other side of the screen listening to them. As the project progresses, we aim to ask follow-up questions or comment on around one-third to half of their posts (there is a thin line between being engaged and annoying, so we don’t do it too much!). This approach means that we get really good engagement from our participants, and also reflects well on our clients, as participants feel listened to.

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