I was interested to read an article entitled “It takes a Web Village” in a recent edition of BusinessWeek that a number of high profile companies such as GSK, Kraft and Hewlett Packard had been turning their attention to the use of online communities when researching the perception of their brands and development of new products.

In the particular cases mentioned, they used a bespoke private online community by linking up with Communispace to provide an environment in which they can work with a defined set of respondents to help them in evaluating new product ideas and, in the process develop additional thoughts and ideas.

There are two aspects to this – firstly the general use of an online environment for this type of research and secondly the selection of the right tools to achieve it. The benefits of using online communities in this way seem clear it is an ideal opportunity for companies to get real feedback from the people that matter most. Their customers. However, the price tag of this type of set up is probably out of reach for many of the companies that would most benefit from it.

So, would a blog be a good substitute to a custom built environment for small and medium sized companies? I believe so.

A business blog is already an great way to create networks and communities of people interested in a certain topic, market or area. By then managing the development and use of the blog, you can set-up an ideal community environment in which to test ideas, get feedback and encourage open discussion between your customers.

You can easily set up a closed blog, just as you might do with an internal blog, or alternatively there is of course the option of a closed area within a current blog set-up. There are already examples of closed or semi-closed environments being used for specific purposes; a product development blog is one such example.

So, how might they be used and what would you expect to gain from them? Well, they could be used:

  • to test discuss ideas for new products and product concepts

  • to test new marketing ideas in terms of promotions, offers, packaging ideas, advertising etc.

  • for surveys which could either be carried out using a threaded discussion and/or a simple tick the box multiple choice

  • to elicit feedback on products by providing an open forum where people can express opinions and discuss specific questions

  • to get an insight as to how you compare with other products on the market

  • debating offers and the appeal of them

By incorporating images or video into the blog, concept testing and sampling can be done using full mock-ups or demos, and at all times the discussions can be directed if required simply by participating in the conversations as they happen. Feedback will tend to be almost instantaneous and the insights from the consumer-to-consumer conversations will be there without any filtering or “interpretations”. At the end of the process, you will also have the benefit of a community of product champions who will feel part of the development of the product.

Are there companies who could not benefit from this? Well, you would need to be interested in hearing what your customers have to say, but thats true of any business blog. Soliciting peoples opinion and then totally ignoring it is never going to be a winning strategy to adopt. Other than that, it seems to me that using the key blog elements of communication and interactivity in this highly focused way to gain insight about your customers, products and marketplace can only be positive.

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