How to manage and maintain a successful long-term online community

Molly Hilton, senior research executive, shares her top tips and tricks when it comes to ensuring the success of a long-term online community.

Towards the end of 2018, Mustard was commissioned by Studio, an established online retailer, to set up an online community platform with a selection of its customers.

Originally titled MyStudioCommunity, renamed CommunityMatters in 2021, the community has over 500 active members. With weekly discussions launching every Tuesday, there’s plenty for respondents to get involved with. Over the years, we’ve explored a range of different topics with members, including brand perceptions, shopping habits, thoughts on delivery and returns, reviews of marketing communications, and much, much more!

As a recent graduate and relatively new to Mustard, I joined the Studio project team in a supporting capacity, eventually progressing to managing Community Matters. Over the years, I’ve also worked on a range of shorter, ‘pop up’ online communities.

So, I’d like to share a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up in recent years when it comes to running a successful long-term online community.

  • Build a genuine rapport with members – arguably the most important aspect of ensuring the success of a long-term community is to establish a genuine rapport and connection with participants. Unlike shorter ‘pop up’ communities, which typically only last 1-2 weeks, participants are inviting us into their lives for a significant period of time. Therefore it’s vital they feel comfortable and trust us as researchers in order to receive open and honest responses. Unlike most other research methods, long-term communities provide researchers with the luxury of time, enabling us to really get to know participants – and vice-versa! We can take the time to ask how they’re feeling, touch upon current affairs, or ask what they’re up to at the weekend. Also, with long-term communities, you can often (eventually) ditch the formalities!


  • Consistency is key – whilst everyone likes a bit of spontaneity from time to time, regular and consistent topic discussions are key to the success of a long-term community. Regular discussions help to maintain engagement. For example, if participants expect a discussion topic to go live every Tuesday, responding often becomes habitual and something they’re more likely to take the time to do.
  • Keep it fresh – although it’s important to ensure regularity and consistency when it comes to the timing of discussion topics, we want to avoid boredom and respondent fatigue. Therefore, topic discussions should be kept exciting and interesting to complete. We’re lucky to work with Qualzy as our platform provider, who offer a range of dynamic and interactive tools (e.g., heat mapping, diary tasks, personal canvas, card sorting) that help us to keep discussion topics engaging.


  • Remember to have fun – although an interactive card-sorting exercise does wonders to keep things interesting, it’s also important to consider the content and length of discussion topics. To avoid respondent fatigue, it’s helpful to follow lengthier discussions with shorter, light-touch topics e.g., tell us about your favourite Christmas gift, or upload a photo of a recent holiday. Remember to have fun, it’s not always all about commercial insight!


  • Read the room – the nature of long-term online communities often means that they might coincide with significant events, and it’s important to consider how participants might be impacted. For example, across March and April 2020, we switched out regular weekly discussions for COVID Check In’s, where we used the Studio community platform to ask how members were feeling, about their concerns, and if there was any way in which the retailer could support them. Whilst this fell outside of the initial scope of the community, it was important to acknowledge current issues and events.


  • A little more conversation – as referenced in an earlier point, one of the main differences between online communities and other research methodologies is the abundance of time. Once a long-term online community is established, it’s often helpful to create a space within the platform where members can chat amongst themselves e.g., a discussion lounge. This is a space where participants can start conversation threads themselves, comment on other posts and generally chat with other like-minded members. Whilst this allows participants to get to know each other better, it can often spark topic ideas and conversations outside of what we as moderators and the client might have considered. We have definitely uncovered some golden nuggets of insight this way.
  • Participant refreshes – from time-to-time, it’s also helpful to carry out a participant refresh. This involves inviting new people to join the existing community members. Not only do participant refreshes boost response rates, but they also bring new life, perspectives, and opinions to community discussions! Participant refreshes also allow us as researchers to expand the community base to include different types of people e.g., increasing the age range of respondents. We typically aim for around 2 or 3 refreshes per year.


  • Client feedback – last, but certainly not least, is the importance of client feedback. For participants, it’s sometimes easy to forget the purpose behind the online community itself. Every few months, we like to send out an email update on behalf of the client, closing the feedback loop by referencing how the insight provided by participants has been used. It also provides the client with an opportunity to interact with community participants and show their appreciation of the insight gathered.

Of course, every long-term online community is different, but hopefully these points have offered some behind-the-scenes insight into the running of a long-term online community and some things to consider.

If you do have any questions about online communities, whether short or long-term, please feel free to reach out – and I’d be happy to help!