Online Communities: Finding Your Customers a Place to be Heard

In a recent Insider article, The New York Times shared back some very touching insights from their readers, emphasizing the way they utilize the comments sections on articles to help build community, garner healthy debate and conversation, and influence future journalistic reporting.

Sona Patel, Director of Community for The Time’s, stresses a few things that really stand out, about her role. They are:

  • “Helping readers find that sense of connection is part of my job…”
  • “I look for ways to strengthen our relationship with readers…”
  • “The best part of my job is seeing our journalism resonate with readers on a personal level, prompting them to share their perspectives. Their daily experiences add valuable context and clarity to our reporting…”

All these concepts that Patel speaks to are pivotal to understanding the human experience and are also an integral part of what Market Research Online Communities (MROCs) can offer any kind of business.

Building Relationships with Your Customers:

The Times’ article starts off discussing how Lorde mentioned in a recent interview that she was taking a break from social media, but found a home and sense of community within the comments section of the NYT Cooking app. She’d been struggling with the time off social media but was able to find a community within a different platform.

As someone who works for a Market Research company, I was certainly intrigued by the fact that this is something we too strive for: The ability to create a community where all feel welcomed to voice their thoughts or listen to and understand the thoughts of others. We specialize in Online Communities, after all! Strong communities build strong relationships and better understanding of one another.

Where The Times can do this through the comments section – building a relationship through moderated comments right on their articles – MROCs help bring this co-creative ideal to other marketplaces and industries, offering a space for customers to discuss any kind of topic in a fully moderated setting! This allows any company to build their business with their customer base in mind and at the forefront of their research.

Much like Lorde’s experience within the NYT Cooking App, MROCs allow for customers to build relationships with others in the same space – but also allow for customers to build a meaningful relationship within the community’s industry. Your industry! Whatever that may be.

It’s like Patel mentioned, “I look for ways to strengthen our relationship with readers…” strengthening relationships with your customers through MROCs has the same sort of impact. By listening to what customers have to say, and implementing that into your business plan, your company will be able to garner meaningful relationships with its consumers and have more success in its space. After all, don’t we all just want to be heard?

Voice of the Customer:

Which brings us to another important part of community, getting a bunch of different voices into the mix. Another way the article discusses how reader comments are important is the conversations they can start. The article goes on to talk about how in the comments section of a recent Opinion Essay (by Jerry Seinfeld) the reader community was eager to share their own stories, relating to the content. This is another thing that MROCs strive for on a more streamlined scale.

While there is always a time to pose straight-forward questions to communities, there is also always room to let community members garner discussions on their own. Having “Member Forums” where community members can talk about all things related to the industry topic opens the floor for your community of consumers to inspire you!

These sections can offer great value within online communities, where sometimes member-generated topics can even inspire you to look into additional research around what is of interest to your consumer base.

Much like Jerry Seinfeld’s Essay sparked a conversation for other members of the New York Community to jump into – MROCs can inspire the same kind of community engagement for any business.

Open forums for discussion among members of the community fully embrace the idea of co-creation and how your customers can also lead the charge in coming up with new ideas and innovation.


Continuing this thought of listening to community members, Patel writes about several instances where reader emotions were important to helping tell stories and reaffirm articles from The Times. She speaks about how often times, the comments on articles helps tell the story more completely, and can be deeply moving and emotional, helping readers connect to the world and others through the human experience.

For example, she discusses an article about child-care issues during the pandemic and the impact it had on mothers. In the comments section of this article, many mothers shared their input on how the pandemic and lack of available child-care/schooling or adjustments to remote schooling had an impact on their own lives, personal goals, and careers.

Empathetic conversation in the comments between people who could relate to the article helped flesh out a more well-rounded, emotional, and accurate story.

Understanding first-hand pain points is another large benefit to MROCs. Much like the comments section in The Times article mentioned above, MROCs allow for people to talk openly and relate – or not relate – to the subject at hand.

These open conversations are always important to have and they can help build an empathetic relationship with consumers, by listening to the emotional impact certain things have on their lives. Understanding your consumers down to who they are as people and what’s important to them will go a long way in making any kind of business or idea successful.

Iterative Process & Always Available Audience Means On-Demand Insights:

Finally, one last part of the article that stands out to me as a researcher, touches on the ideas of iterative research and available audiences. The Times discusses comments on a recent article regarding the state of travel during the current COVID-19 Pandemic.

Many comments flooded in, several speaking to the pains of being separated from loved ones and significant others from an ocean away. And boy, as someone in a long-distance relationship herself, doesn’t that speak true.

Seeing all these comments from people, the author of the original article was inspired to write a follow-up – this one pertaining specifically to the idea of separation and the difficulties it puts upon families.

I see how you could be sitting there wondering how this pertains to research. But truly, it’s quite simple! Just as the author of that article was able to follow up based on what readers were experiencing, MROCs are capable of the same thing!

Another great part about Online Communities is that you always have your sample at your disposal and don’t need to waste time recruiting project to project.

So, did something really interesting come out in that last topic that you have more questions about now? Not a problem! You already have a sample of people “in the know” for the context and you can follow up with them directly – within a week even.

Online Communities make iterative research and available sample that much easier, much like comments make it easier for journalists to follow-up on articles that pertain to their readers.

In Conclusion:

Now, not all companies can be The New York Times where a large majority of their business is – by default – engaging with their customer base face-to-face, we know this! But that doesn’t mean these insights and engagement opportunities are unattainable. MROCs can provide a space for empathetic, iterative, and constant communication between brand and consumer that you just can’t get anywhere else.

It’s all about being human and building relationships, much like all those conversations in The Times comments’ sections. So don’t hesitate to check out how you can get started understanding your consumer base today!

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