Using Online Qualitative Research to Build Brand Advocates Throughout the Customer Experience

Building and maintaining a base of customers is one of the toughest things a brand must do. Regardless of your product or service or industry, somebody needs to be willing to buy for you to stay in business.

Customer rapport can mean the difference between survival and failure, and most often, companies will rely on their marketing and communications budgets to do most of the heavy lifting to maintain a healthy relationship.

But is a healthy relationship enough? Do customers expect something more from you? Should they expect something more? How can you take things to the next level and make your brand part of their lifestyle?

These are all good questions, but in the treasure trove of data available to businesses of all sizes, how do you answer them? The reality is that customers have deeper needs and motivations that drive their decision-making processes. Sales data will tell you what customers purchase and when they purchase it.

Digital marketing data will tell you how many clicks it takes for a customer to get from a search engine to your website. You can make lots of assumptions based on that data (good assumptions if your analytics team is strong). What you won’t get is why.

Consumer research is important now more than ever in understanding a customer’s journey. At some point, consumers will come across a product or service and make a number of decisions before deciding whether to buy, and perhaps more importantly, buy again.

Customer segmentation studies are common ways to understand large swathes of potential consumers. This type of research seeks to systematically bucket the behavioral similarities of consumers in order to better market to them. These studies are performed regularly to help brands position or reposition new or existing products or services prior to launch to maximize their impact in the market. This, however, does not a brand champion make.

Journey mapping is meant to be prescriptive of any particular customer’s actions when engaging with a brand. This consists of all aspects of interaction with the brand via learning about a product/service, trying it out, reading reviews, etc.

The purpose of this research is to optimize processes or make specific aspects of the customer journey more efficient and seamless. All of this is an explanation of how a customer arrives at a decision to buy. It does not explain why.

Qualitative research is the key to building brand advocacy

By using qualitative research, a brand is able to rationalize customer behavior and understand their underlying motivations. Why is this valuable? Qualitative research can be used in a variety of ways, from understanding which slogan suits your brand best to which message fits with the tone of your latest marketing campaign.

Putting an order of magnitude behind your research questions is important, and businesses should live and die by numbers, but recognizing that there is reason behind significant customer actions is incredibly important. Knowing why is powerful.

When the motivating factors behind a purchase are unveiled, concrete actions can be undertaken to improve sales and marketing efforts. Ultimately, qualitative research allows for brands to make calculated, informed decisions to drive growth and increase your customer base.

It’s an important piece of the puzzle, but how does good qualitative research translate into brand advocacy? How does a respondent become a brand champion? Beyond the capability for qualitative research to inform strategic decision-making, it can help brands capitalize on positive customer relations and deepen the customer experience.

Using qualitative research, a brand can explore customer touch points and understand why specific tactics work. Brands can use this more granular data to analyze the language being used to describe their products and services. They can develop a lingo of sorts with which to more effectively communicate with customers.

This, in turn, leads to customers trusting the brand and wanting to more closely associate themselves with the brand. Really, this is important because it could mean the difference between a customer privately expressing their love of the brand and publicly shouting to the world about it, and who doesn’t like a little unsolicited positive press?

While there’s no need to eschew the more traditional methods of communicating your brand’s messages via marketing, it’s worthwhile to consider how placing your customer first in other aspects of your business can help to make your customers brand loyalists.

One method for building brand advocacy is via the research itself. Strange as it seems, consumer research is a common form of direct communication with your customer base. Brands regularly reach out to their customers with questions that need answering. In doing so, brands invite customers into their processes and signal to them that their thoughts and feelings are valued.

Not only that, if the initiative is visible to customers, they will feel that they have contributed positively to a brand that they support. This goodwill is recognized by customers and help them to feel that their patronage is being recognized. As a result of this positive experience, they may champion the brand to others.

Obtaining qualitative insights via Online Communities

 Brands are constantly looking for better ways to interact with their customers and broaden the scope of how they communicate. One-way brands obtain qualitative insights is via an online community. An online community is a formally established pool of customers that a brand has recruited for research activities.

The purpose of these communities is to be able to repeatedly utilize these customers as a resource for relevant insights. In doing so, a brand opens a direct channel of communication with customers through which they can solicit responses on any number of topics including new products or services, outreach campaign concepts, etc.

While interaction with customers within an online community is primarily transactional, as customers earn rewards for participation, it can be an important brand advocacy tool. By inviting customers into the development phases of its products/services, they feel a sense of ownership in the brand.

They feel they have a stake in its success or failure, and they will be willing to aid in its success when they believe in the value of the products/services. This translates to further interactivity with the brand and with others about the brand.

A best practice within an online community is to ensure that customers are aware of the impact that their actions have. After each research activity, it’s prudent to recap the results of the project, whether that’s a simple recollection of the aggregated opinions of the group at large, or real-world application of findings.

This collaborative aspect is especially helpful when brands have larger questions that customers can assist with. Questions about new products/services and potential innovation are sure to pique customer interest and encourage involvement while simultaneously communicating the good will of the brand.

A research effort like CrowdWeaving™ (KLC’s proprietary customer co-creation methodology) does this expertly by posing a brand’s problem as a challenge. Customers participate in this challenge and attempt to provide the best solution based on the collective wisdom of fellow customers.

Participants ideate their solution and work with others to improve their ideas before the group votes on the most effective submissions. From there, the brand is able to help curate the leading customer ideas before presenting them with a final selection for them to vote on.

By gamifying the research process, customers are engaged and willing to provide legitimate ideas and feedback. They incorporate their own ideas into others and build on the group’s collective thinking to develop rich, customer-oriented solutions that are highly useable.

At KLC, we’ve used this methodology numerous times to great effect. Not only does CrowdWeaving™ propose innovative solutions to a brand’s problems, it helps to engage customers and make them an integral part of the product development process.

The unique perspective of each customer allows participants the opportunity to empathize with others who use that same product/service. This fosters a sense of community among the broader customer group and makes them feel as though they’re all part of the brand.

Even within industries where the product/service is extremely impersonal, we’ve found that customers are much more invested in these brands after having participated in this type of in-depth qualitative exercise. Luckily, we’ve been able to share the results of many customer solutions and many have already been put into action, which only serves to further invest customers in the fate of these brands.

One such example of a customer-created solution that became a rousing success was with one of the food brands we work with. Their product development team was interested in creating a new seasonal product and took their problem to their customers via our online community.

One customer suggested taking advantage of the current consumer inclination towards all things rainbow and unicorn-related (this was several years ago). Upon hearing the idea, the product development team took the reigns and, based on this customer’s suggestion, created a rainbow unicorn version of one of their most popular products and pushed it to market.

We extolled the efforts of this participant to the community, who lauded their contributions and served to further engage the customer base. This increased customer interest in the brand due to its customer-inspired approach and made brand advocates out of many within the community.

Another instance of the reciprocal nature of qualitative research among a brand’s customers was CrowdWeaving™ activity completed with one of our utility brands. Utilities, as you might imagine, have difficulty engaging with their customers. Most customers perceive their utilities as a drain on their finances, an expense and nothing more. At best, they are ignored. At worst, they are to blame for a power outage or shortage.

Nonetheless, one of our utility brands sought to challenge the customers in its online community to help them innovate ways for them to improve their local communities. Surprisingly, customers took to the subject matter and a torrent of great ideas flooded in.

One of these great ideas came in the form of a proposed “Senior Lunch” during heat waves at local community shelters to aid older residents who may not have access to air conditioning. As the community was fairly new, having only been started a month prior, the customer who posted this idea was inexperienced in participating in an online environment.

She emailed us explaining that she was not confident in what she proposed, thinking it a long shot, and was thinking about leaving the community. We reassured her of the power of her idea and related the positive response that the community had given to what she had proposed. Thankfully, she remained a member of the community.

In the end, her idea was one of those that the brand found radically different yet remarkably interesting. In several months’ time, the brand put her idea into action and even reached out to her to recommend a name for the program. We called out this customer’s ingenuity to our community, who celebrated the solution and the brand’s willingness to act on a good idea. The ordeal brought considerable customer attention to this new program and remains a success for the local community.

This qualitative exercise proved to be both a legitimate solution for the brand and a catalyst for customer engagement. Customers in the community were afforded high visibility into the process for ideating, generating, and developing a solution for a brand that they would otherwise retain an impersonal relationship with. This CrowdWeaving™ wound up being instrumental for helping the brand develop further programs to help identify itself as a trusted partner for its customers.

In Conclusion

If nothing else, qualitative research should be part of any brand advocacy plan. Brand advocacy is about encouraging further engagement with the products and services that your customers love. Customers want the products and services in their lives to be brilliant.

They want to love them. They want reasons to love the brands who make them. Qualitative research can both encourage engagement with your brand and elucidate the underlying motivations of why your customer might consider interacting with you in the first place, which is something you might like to know