Research communities provide a new degree of control over participant engagement and collaboration and, in turn, biases. This depth of control was previously unavailable with traditional methods such as focus groups or surveys. A researcher now has the opportunity to harness the influence of bias in a more decisive way to shape the development of each respondent's thought process.
Online communities change the way we think about ourselves and those around us. I was recently discussing this with a friend of mine, through Facebook chat, of course. She is a researcher in a psychology study (currently under review) that found Facebook users often experience jealousy and a certain degree of dissatisfaction with the current state of their lives as a result of exposure to other users’ posts. People in our online social networks typically only post (i.e. promote) positive aspects of their lives that effectively creates the illusion of a failure-free population. When we occupy these networks our perceived flaws or failures are magnified in the absence of other similar lived and shared experiences. This study is an intriguing example of a community's collective bias on a massive scale. The social climate, not necessarily the forum or network itself, encourages positive contributions while discouraging negatives ones (arguably to our own personal and social detriment). This study is also a spectacular illustration of how an online community can alter our relationship with the (less virtual) world around us. Our motivations, feelings, and aspirations are linked to the benchmarks established in these virtual atmospheres. Research communities provide a new degree of control over participant engagement and collaboration and, in turn, biases. This depth of control was previously unavailable with traditional methods such as focus groups or surveys. A researcher now has the opportunity to harness the influence of bias in a more decisive way to shape the development of each respondent's thought process. Decisions can be made as to what specifically will be kept private, what will be shared, what will be highlighted as a key point of discussion within the community and ultimately what will shape the progression of the hive mind as a whole. Where a focus group addresses a literal room of people, a community can address a figurative auditorium of people. Having a community increases reach while still maintaining the depth and intimacy of response quality that is essential to qualitative research (provided the chosen platform possesses the necessary population management features). A community can be scaled in size as is needed, while remaining manageable for moderators. Where a survey is completed and forgotten, a community can become a miniature market habitat. A seed planted by one response can easily grow, demonstrating to respondents the impact and value of their contributions. If moderators would like to create the appearance that a certain sentiment is more prevalent, important, and/or valuable, doing so is within their control. Considering these factors in tandem, moderators’ power is bolstered. They can control the magnitude of relationships with participants, between participants and with the subject matter being discussed all on whatever scale is most appropriate to an organization's research and marketing goals. “Bias” need not be a dirty word in research. Rather, it can be a resource, a source of power. Bias is unavoidable and, as discussed, some forms of bias can be exploited to uncover more insightful contributions. Understanding the fluid role that bias plays within all online communities is essential to optimizing the performance of an online research community. Leveraging this bias can elevate response quality beyond that of traditional methods. Further, a moderator's ability to shape the trajectory of a community's collective bias might also be the key to developing a platform that serves both as a research tool and a promotion, Brand Champion, WOM generator. The nefarious among us may already be plotting ways to misdirect biases, influencing community spaces, spoiling the validity of results. However, instead of fearing the inevitable or what is already happening, I suggest that we, as researchers, eagerly look towards this potential problem as an exciting future research exploration. Ultimately, I want to emphasize that new technologies have enabled us to overcome certain restrictions associated with old methods. In overcoming these barriers we must rethink previously held ideas about how marketing research should be conducted.
By Dana Cassady, Implementation Consultant for Recollective A related study on exploration of social comparison on Facebook can be found here: Midgley, C.E. (2013). Keeping in touch or keeping score?: Social comparisons on Facebook. (Masters thesis). Retrieved from: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/43235.