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A frequent question I've heard from clients is how do you make a community panel, which is inherently larger than a typical "community" be intimate and engaging? Size does matter, but perhaps not in the ways you might expect.

Vision Critical's community panel philosophy
First of all, it is important to understand our Community Panel Philosophy here at Vision Critical.

We build community panels largely for research purposes. From the client's perspective, our solution gives the ability to run robust quantitative surveys and analysis, as well as gather exploratory insights through our Discussions tool. The intent is for these projects to focus on answering your business needs and challenges. Questions get asked in a targeted way through surveys, and in a more organic and loose way through discussions.

We typically see overall engagement rates of 70-80% in our community panels, with response rates to surveys hitting the 40% mark. This is clear proof that our philosophy does work.

We aim to create a smaller, more intimate environment when we run discussions and other qualitative activities. We would never expect nor want 5000 members to participate; that wouldn't be fun for anyone.

Universal elements of engagement
There are universal elements of engagement we recognize within our philosophy to ensure intimacy, regardless of the size of a community panel. These include:

  • Setting expectations for participation and amount of contact
  • Building transparent and authentic connections
  • Rewarding members extrinsically
  • Inviting members to relevant conversations

Setting expectations
We set expectations up front with members as to what volume of contact they should expect when they sign up, whether that be a couple of times a month or a couple of times per week.

Then when we launch we deliver on these expectations. If volume gets higher than what we've anticipated we have the option to split sample or only invite members to projects relevant to them.

We also let members know the amount of time we would like to spend with us in a typical month - this usually ranges from 15-20 minutes to a couple of hours depending on anticipated volume.

Building transparent and authentic connections
From the member's perspective, we invite them to be a SPECIAL ADVISOR to the brand or category. As with any relationship, trust and respect must be the foundation. In order to build the relationship on a strong foundation we encourage our clients to:

  • "open the kimono" and give members access to the company's decision making process and challenges in ways typically not shared in traditional MR;
  • communicate in an open, straightforward and authentic way with members about the purpose of the community panel as well as individual projects
    introduce themselves as real people;
  • interact directly when we run exploratory activities;
  • answer member's questions directly as they arise;
  • profile and recognize members by posting quotes, photos and interesting ideas
  • offer behind the scenes access and sneak peeks that are relevant to members.

Members of our community panels, even those which mainly run surveys, would say they feel they are a member of a community because of our strong push for engagement.

Rewarding members extrinsically
In addition to building transparent and authentic connections with members, we also typically offer financial rewards in our community panels. These can take any of the following forms:

  • Recruit incentive - a thank you for joining the community panel.
  • Contests/sweepstakes are the most common forms of rewards and work well as long as the program is easy to understand and members are promoted.
  • Surprise and delights for top contributors on an annual or semi annual basis.
  • Product delivered as part of a research project or as a separate thank you to everyone or just to top contributors.
  • Charitable contributions on behalf of the community panel.
  • Individual incentives for time intensive activities (eg: chats, groups, digital journals).
  • Points programs for individual rewards.

Inviting members to relevant conversations
When running qualitative activities we strive to ensure we invite the right people to the right conversation. Just like creating a guest list and planning for a party, you want the right mix of people in the room so that people have common ground to start conversations and engage with one other. You also want to make sure you make people feel comfortable and entertained, so that they'll want to stick around and come back the next time you invite them.

Casual versus focused listening
In addition to understanding our community panel philosophy and the foundational elements of engagement and intimacy, it is important to understand there is a difference between casual listening (tuning into the noise) versus listening with a focus.

From what we've seen, clients who want to create a very engaging community environment still run about 75% of their activities and projects as surveys vs discussions or other qual. Clients see our community panel philosophy as a perfect balance to get the best of both worlds; both the numbers and the "why's" as needed.

Although our tools can enable members to start their own conversations about anything under the sun, many of our clients are not interested in doing this. From what we've seen, social media monitoring can be a better starting point for broad consumer listening. Then you won't just hear from the avid 5-10 regular people. You can also then use your community to test out themes and ideas you've heard in the broader space. This is a much better use of everyone's already stretched time.

Plus, managing a "free for all discussion" is time consuming and typically doesn't engage more than a handful of members who are already engaged and happily participating without it in the first place. Rather than having an ongoing free for all where members can talk about whatever they like from back to school challenges with their kids, what their pets had for breakfast, and their new favorite hats, we give them opportunities to "tell us what we should know" in a focused forum or survey. This way we still get the opportunity to hear answers to the questions that didn't get asked without having to deal with the low signal to noise ratio of a complete free for all.

So to answer the question, does size really matter when it comes to engagement and intimacy in community panels? NO. You can create engagement and intimacy with any size from hundreds to many thousands by following basic principles of setting expectations, creating transparent and authentic connections, rewarding members extrinsically, and inviting members to relevant conversations.

For more information about what members are looking for when they participate in surveys, check out Andrew Grenville's great blog post here.

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Ellie Hutton

Ellie is passionate about our customers' experience, shining a spotlight on the success of our customers, and bringing the voice of the customer to our business. She’s been with Vision Critical since 2006, in research, marketing, sales enablement, customer success and CX teams. Ellie has over 20 years of experience in research and marketing, partnering with companies across many verticals to build brands, develop products, retain customers, evaluate communications, develop strategy, and facilitate change.
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