Properly preparing for long-term online research communities

Anthony Shephard-Williams, research director, shares his thoughts on some things to consider in the run up to launching a long-term online community.

Earlier this year Mustard was commissioned to build and develop a long-term online community platform and provide consultancy services for the Transport for West Midlands Future Transport Zone (FTZ) Programme 2020-2023.

Excitingly, the community will go live in mid-November 2020 and will put thousands of West Midlands residents at the heart of decisions in relation to future transport strategy. Although the moment of ‘going live’ is obviously extremely critical to the success of a community, the lead up to and preparation of a long-term online community in itself can be an intensive time, and to build a truly successful community there is lots of planning and preparation to be done.

There are, of course, many elements to building and designing an ongoing community. Here is an overview of some of the key things that need to be considered in the ‘building’ and preparation phase of a longer-term online community.

  1. The community look and feel

First impressions really do count and the homepage of a community is what community members will see first, and then revisit most often. It is essential the community homepage ticks a few boxes. It goes without saying that the community purpose must be clear, navigation of the site must be user-friendly and it needs to be visually appealing. Some of our clients want the colour and tone of their community to mirror their own company website, others prefer it to be more impartial. Some clients come to us with their own ideas on community design and style preferences, others prefer us to help guide them. There is a lot more to choosing colour and style than you may initially think. Where colour is concerned, for example, the study of semiotics indicates that people sub-consciously draw their own associations and infer meanings by colour choices. I presented a recent community client with the below to highlight some common colour associations and to get them thinking about the ‘feelings’ they wanted to portray.

Long term online communities

On our community homepages, the use of striking imagery is important and to get our clients thinking about the styles of imagery they might want to use we have developed mood-boards, where we have a selection of images related to an overall theme and word associations.

preparing properly for a long-term online community
  1. Choosing a community name

It can be fun, but also quite tricky, to choose a community name as it needs to be short and snappy and encapsulate the true essence of what the community should represent. We tend to think of ideas internally and provide our clients with a shortlist to choose from. Examples of our long-term community names include Cat Chat (for Pets at Home), Tell MA (for The Money Advice Service, whose slogan was Ask MA) and My Studio Community (for Studio). We sometimes let our community members get involved in the decision too, which can be a great way for them to feel a sense of ownership of the community from the get go. At present our plan is to let the members of our new Transport for West Midlands community provide ideas for the community name and then we will select a short list to put back to the community for a vote. However, we will also have some of our own ideas to throw into the mix just to avoid a ‘Boaty McBoatface’ scenario, as the name should ideally hold some relevance to the objectives of the community.

long-term online comminity
  1. Building the project team

At Mustard, we guarantee a strong team of highly personable moderators on any community. We pride ourselves on our moderation skills and building relationships with our respondents to get the most out of them. Positively, we often get feedback about how much our participants have enjoyed taking part in our communities (a pat on the back to all our community moderators!) but to ensure our participants are having a good time we also need to make sure that our moderators have a genuine interest in the subject matter and also enjoy the experience. When I am thinking about building a community project team there are a few things I often consider – is it a subject that excites me / someone else in the team? Do I / or does someone else have a specific skill relevant to the community objectives? (for example, do we need someone to moderate who has behavioural economics experience or who is brilliant at creating and designing new projective techniques) or am I / is someone else going to be respected more as a moderator? A couple of recent examples where I knew that I, personally, would be less suitable as a moderator were on a community for a beauty brand where we were engaging with 18-24-year olds about skincare regimes (I’m not so interested in skin care products and am way beyond that age group!) and a community about football boot design (I have zero interest in football, and might almost go as far saying I hate it!).

  1. Pulling together an initial activity plan

One of the key benefits of the long-term online community methodology is the flexibility it provides to research practically anything, however, that’s not to say a solid plan isn’t needed from day 1. We always think it is best to plan ahead and have a steer on what research activities will be taking place. It also makes sense from a business perspective to align activity to key internal milestones (for example knowing when a new campaign is due to launch could influence when a particular activity is needed). Prior to long-term communities commencing we will work with our clients to build an initial onboarding plan (this is all about getting members online and engaged and is where we focus heavily on relationship building) and then we move on to the nitty gritty of the research plan. These can be anything from a 3 month to 12-month plan with the knowledge that there is the flexibility and scope to add in additional activity as and when necessary.

These are just a few of things to consider. There are, of course, many more! If you have any questions about online communities (whether shorter pop-up communities or longer-term communities) feel free to get in touch –