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There is a growing consensus that most brands and organisations need to be engaging their customers in conversations. This is in marked contrast with the traditional trifurcated model where NPD did the thinking, Marketing did the talking/shouting, and Market Research did the listening - in order for a brand to get a complete picture the three needed to work together (like the three Graeae from Greek mythology who shared one eye and one tooth between them).

Customers today expect to be participants and companies seeking to create a competitive edge in markets where technical advantages are hard to sustain are looking to turn their customers into a key point of difference and innovation.

There are many ways of brands having conversations with customers and they all have their merits. Senior managers are spending time with customers, sometimes even staying in their homes as a form of amateur ethnography, communities such as MyStarbucksIdea and Facebook Pages (such as those of Disney and Oreos) put brands in touch with millions, and social media listening is beginning to open up new ways of brands joining conversations. However, the two routes that seem to be attracting the most success are MROCs and Community Panels. There fact there are two successful routes raises the question, which is best, an MROC or a Community Panel?

It often seems that no two people agree on what exactly an MROC is, so making a comparison between an MROC and a Community Panel can be hard. Here are my definitions, based on the research I did for the Handbook of Online and Social Media Research.

An MROC (a Market Research Online Community) is essentially a qualitative approach. MROCs vary in size but they tend to have between 80 and 800 members and to be focused on discussions (although MROC members will often be invited to take part in surveys, polls, and auto-ethnography and other research approaches). MROCs can be short-term, e.g. one week to three months, or they can be long term. However, some people argue that 'real' communities can only be long-term, since it takes time to develop a community.

By contrast, a community panel is larger in scale and can be used for both quantitative and qualitative research. A typical community panel comprises customers (like an MROC), is branded as being for and on behalf of the brand (like an MROC) and has between 4,000 and 40,000 members. Community panels are almost always long-term, since, usually, the cost of creating a panel need to be offset by the savings in using them over time. It is worth noting that some people include community panels within the term MROC, since they are communities, they are online, and they were created for research purposes - but the MROC specialists tend to contest this usage.

Proponents of MROCs can point to significant benefits, in terms of the value of the research (a typical finding is the same research budget can deliver three times as much research), the quality of the research, and the overall benefits of a brand becoming closer to its customers.

A few years ago having an MROC meant developing community software from non-research options or going with one of the pioneers of MROCs. So, it really was an either/or choice between an MROC and a community panel for many brands and organisations.

However, brands no longer need to choose an MROC or a community panel. If an organisation has a community panel they can use part of it as an ongoing MROC, they can create short-term MROCs (or Bulletin Board Groups or online focus groups) when they need them, and still field their regular quant studies to the community panel. For brands who are already spending a reasonable amount of money on research, community panels turn out to be faster, cheaper, and more flexible.

My feeling is that 90% plus of brands should have one or more community panels, and that most of those panels should have MROCs and other research approaches working within them. Over the next few years I expect to see community panels becoming the research hub for brands, with MROCs, social medial listening, Big Data integration, mass ethnography, and links to third-party panels (to find out about non-customers) as the norm.

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