Online Research Communities: Common Design Elements

We’ve identified and reviewed the different emerging or commonly executed community design elements on Recollective. In doing so, we provide a window into how the industry currently works with communities, give you a sense of where future opportunity exists, and how you can better position your own research bids.

Research agencies that consistently conduct community based projects tend to do so using the same set of features and design elements for most of the projects they run. What design elements compose that set, however, vary considerably from firm to firm. Given this variance, there is opportunity to learn from one another and to think about how the wide breadth of possibility introduced by a community platform can help to sell more research. To seize this opportunity, we’ve identified and reviewed the different emerging or commonly executed community design elements on Recollective. In doing so, we provide a window into how the industry currently works with communities, give you a sense of where future opportunity exists, and how you can better position your own research bids.

Design Elements:

  • Private - IDI replacements, no sharing between participants
  • Collaborative - Focus Group replacements, aim to generate conversation
  • Blue Sky - Open-ended structure, participants only engage with what interests them
  • In-The-Moment - Capture designated transactions in a participant’s life
  • Journal - Ethnographic, document elements of a participants day-to-day life
  • Ongoing - Always accessible research platform, achieves speed and convenience

Private Communities

While most communities feature some kind of social, collaborative component, keeping things private is sometimes advantageous. In Private Communities, each individual participant and the moderator’s private conversations becomes the object of study. These studies are designed as in-depth interview replacements. Private, in-depth conversation allows both the researcher and the participant to be more effective with their time as neither is required to schedule a call or meeting to communicate. Rather, both groups can engage when doing so is convenient to them. As a result, more meaningful conversations can be had with a smaller budget. Common populations range from 25 up to 150, beyond which the text and video heavy responses can become difficult to effectively analyze. These communities tend to be shorter in duration than other community methods, often ranging from 3 to 10 days in length. Participants are sometimes given the option to complete everything in a single visit and Activities are commonly tagged with a time-to-complete, allowing the respondent to work at their own pace. Communities are often kept private when engaging with a difficult and/or expensive audience to reach because the method focuses only on collecting the insights most critical to the project. Conversely, many traditional benefits broadly associated with a community methods are lost.

Brainstorming, Collaboration, & Ideation

When considering an online qualitative community, researchers are likely to think of communities designed specifically for the purpose of bringing participants together to collaborate around a designated topic. Brainstorming, Collaboration, and Ideation studies could be thought of as a focus group replacement. Unlike focus groups, though, all voices can contribute at once, creating more room to generate conversation. As part, populations tend to vary between 25 and 75 for overall projects, often split between studies or segments to help with organization and to keep certain users focused. Still, collaborative elements can be leveraged within any community scope. These projects tend to be slightly longer in duration than Private communities, ranging between 1 and 4 weeks. This provides the researcher with more time to factor responses and sentiment into the trajectory of the conversation, implementing an iterative approach. Effective studies within this category do a good job of coaching and incentivizing participants to explore the social community feeds. In the context of Recollective, this might mean splitting Tasks into as many overall Activities as reasonably possible, increasing the number of times that a participant will visit a response stream.

Blue Sky

Communities that leverage Blue Sky design elements extend participants a great deal of freedom to engage with the research however is most appropriate or interesting for them. These studies aim to position community members as the directors of the content to be explored while researchers adapt to keep up. Researchers brave enough to engage with Blue Sky methodologies remain relatively rare, but the concept is an exciting one. For example, there is potential to create studies that revolve around a miniature online ecosystem, where researchers can focus less on responses to specific questions and more on the implications of how a given sample behaves in and makes use of a space. Those communities that currently feature a Blue Sky approach often do so by first implementing open discussions. These discussions are then mined for inspiration; content deserving of exploration is developed into more structured activities. This approach, due to the fact that it is participant-driven, ensures participants feel invested in the project’s formation, which drives them to contribute quality content.Blue Sky community solutions are a good option if engaging with a population of respondents with a notable expertise or highly specific interest, such as video game enthusiasts invested in a particular online game or healthcare business owners, that the researcher does not or could not be expected to fully understand. A Blue sky community could also be thought of as a particularly genuine form of qualitative research. These projects aim to avoid biases that might be unwittingly imposed by the researcher or marketing team. These projects are an ideal starting point in a scenario where it’s clear that research is necessary, but the researcher is not sure where to begin. Populations and durations tend to be larger and longer, given there is some ambiguity regarding what specifically you’ll get from a given participant.


The asynchronous nature of communities combined with mobile access presents unique opportunity to capture moments with participants as they happen. A participant need not be tied to a specific location or time, as they might with another engagement tool or method. These studies are often designed around scavenger hunt type exercises where participants document a journey via photos and videos. As part, these communities often feature a Blue Sky component, given that too much influence on the part of the researcher might spoil a otherwise typical and illustrative consumer outing. Communities designed specifically around an in-the-moment event are generally smaller in scope with a population typical of qualitative research. A longer duration however, can simplify logistics for everyone involved. It also provides more room to run activities on either side of the main in-the-world event. Projects that have in-the-moment components are consistently common. As video becomes easier to upload and to review, projects that have an in-the-moment component but are not necessarily designed around the event, are growing in popularity.

Journaling and Ethnography

Ethnographic research, when executed in a traditional way, can be exorbitantly expensive and time consuming. The features available within most community platforms, however, can take what was once a cost prohibitive method and put it on autopilot. Recurring journal exercises coupled with flexible options for sharing media create a consistent structure in which participants can illustrate the nuances of their day-to-day lived experience. Plus, an argument could be made that participants are more free to present an accurate depiction of their experiences, given that they no longer need to directly confront a researcher in-person. While these studies tend to focus on a smaller population, a community platform provides the tools to scale considerably. As for duration, a longer term is generally better. Similar to in-the-moment activities, journals are regularly seen in studies as an add-on that isn’t necessarily the main focus of the project. Rather, these tools can add valuable nuance to an otherwise standard study.

Ongoing Communities

It’s often assumed that an ongoing community will be a dedicated MROC, a single study with several hundred or thousands of consumers who take part in a ongoing engagement that might last years. While this is certainly an option, and a common one, there are other ways of approaching a community platform to exploit the benefits of a large scale community without the need to maintain continuous engagement.Projects in this category typically feature methods that begin to blur the line between qual and quant research and, consequently, deal with populations to match, starting around 300 and, in our experience, expanding all the way to 5000. Regarding duration, it is increasingly common for brands to commission an ongoing site from which to launch short-term engagements as needed. This approach facilitates a faster path to respondents and encourages a closer relationship between marketers and their audience. These sites are often supported by an agency or agencies.If a brand owns an ongoing community platform, an agency can position as a go-to source of expertise for projects launched from the platform. This can help the agency to establish new relationships within the organization, as they work with different divisions and teams to make best use of the established resource. An increase in the number of brands purchasing their own community platform to be supported by agencies suggests changing ideas surrounding who will control the interfaces used to engage with consumers for the purpose of research. Also, a community positioned as a platform or hub for different research tools speaks to a possible future within the marketing research industry, a trend that will likely grow more pronounced as technology allows for more communication and synergy between tools. Research communities continue to be remarkably versatile, with no other research tool showing the potential to support such a widely varying array of methods. More exciting still is the ability to mix and match different techniques to deliver truly custom solutions. Ultimately, this versatility means that a research consultant can confidently initiate conversations about how to best approach any given business problem.

Dana Cassady
Vice President Customer Services

Let's research happy together