The Benefits of Online Customer Closeness

Sarah Askew, Associate Director at McCallum Layton, outlines the value that online techniques can bring in helping client brands develop powerful consumer insights.

Engaging Respondents And Internal Stakeholders…
Using online techniques to carry out research is nothing new but the explosion of social networking in recent years means that the ability to converse, group together and share opinions with strangers (as well as friends and family) online has become the norm in 2010. This has had an inevitable impact on the way that brands are choosing to carry out research. Increasingly, interest is shifting from remotely collecting data about respondents – who are objects of a set research approach – to engaging with them as participants in a much more discursive and interactive research process.

I’m genuinely excited at the growth of online qualitative methodologies and the opportunities they open up for all those involved – participants, clients and researchers too. The benefits that online customer closeness (and co-creation) bring in allowing consumers and clients to have more direct interactions naturally mean that the researcher takes more of a back seat. This has meant adapting from the guiding, directional ‘moderator’ role to that of a more passive, instrumental ‘facilitator’.

This shift from traditional roles does deliver its own benefits. Having direct conversations with consumers (rather than through the researcher as a conduit for debriefing findings) can be immensely powerful and engaging for clients. If the internet has created what Marshall McLuhan termed a ‘global village’, then it seems Web 2.0 technologies allow us to create ‘research villages’, where ‘hands on’ insight and interactions are opened up to people in diverse functions across client businesses. To give you a ‘real life’ example, we’re currently in the process of running an innovation community, which, amongst other things, allows internal clients, from departments ranging from commercial strategy to operations, to have direct interaction with their customers, via online forums. Feedback from the client team has been that, whilst the experience has lifted them out of their usual comfort zone, the direct insight they’ve been able to get into customers’ opinions – and the ability to have ongoing conversations – has been invaluable.

Empowering The Respondent…
The democratisation of the research process doesn’t end with client organisations though. One of the most powerful benefits which online customer closeness has delivered, has been the empowerment of respondents to become involved in setting the research agenda. Previously, the role of ‘respondent’ has largely been a reactive one – we set questions or topics to which they give us their responses, and whilst a good moderator will always ask for respondents’ own feedback and suggestions, the process is framed and driven by what have been pre-determined as the important areas of interest. Whilst I would never suggest that we should completely hand the reins of the research agenda to respondents, online customer closeness techniques enable customers to take greater control and direct their own conversations with brands.

Powerful Insights…
Referring back to our ‘real life’ example again, some of the most insightful and interesting threads in the forums have been those generated by participants. In discussion with the client team, we’ve been able to develop – and delve deeper into – those which are most of interest to the organisation. The client team have often been surprised and fascinated by what has mattered most to their customers, giving them a refreshing perspective on the customer experience. My advice for those wishing to get close to their customers would be to open up to listening to what consumers want to tell you – rather than what you think you need to know – and don’t be afraid to communicate with customers, using online techniques. They can’t bite in a virtual conversation!

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Find out more about how we can help develop your approach to customer closeness, Contact:

Sarah Askew, Associate Director
T: +44 (0)113 237 5590