By Mark Ursell, chief executive of online research specialists Tpoll

First Direct bank is the latest company to propose the use of an online forum to crowdsource its future digital marketing developments. Online communities are a powerful way of obtaining data you can actually use to improve your business. Mark Ursell, chief executive of online research specialists Tpoll, reveals how...

1.Use your own customer database, instead of paying market researchers to go out and find the people whose details you already have on file. It’s the best place to start.

2.Ensure you know who the people are providing you with feedback. If you don’t know that they are a customer with a vested interest in seeing the service or product you provide develop and improve, how can you be sure their feedback is steering your business in the right direction?

3.Get buy-in from across the business from the outset. Getting stakeholders to invest in the concept of online communities and establishing an understanding of what they can do will make everything run more smoothly later on.

4.Invest time up front to understand how you will engage community members. Engagement is key to the long-term health of your community. You more than anyone know your customers and what makes them tick. You will therefore have a good feel for what tools and enticements will work for them — if you can’t imagine your customers enjoying the community, you may need to re-think your engagement strategy.

5. Put a policy in place outlining exactly how you will communicate with community members and stick to it. The tone of communication for the community and how that fits with your industry or brand is all-important — you would, for instance, need to speak to a community of company CEOs in a very different way to a youth panel made up of 18 to 25-year-olds.

6.Decide on the community’s status with the Market Research Society. Working within the MRS guidelines gives you protection and increased freedom to recruit customers who have signed up for research. But it also means you can’t give your vouchers, products or services as incentives.

7.Think about how you can integrate other data sources with your community. Are there social media, call centre or transactional data that can be appended to community feedback to provide a really rich single source of insight?

8. Don’t underestimate the resources you will need to commit from your team to keep the community engaged and the insight robust. If you find you are under-resourced, agencies can provide everything from stand-alone software solutions to full-service management of the community.

9.Don’t expect the job to be completely finished right after launch. You should continue to help you publicise the successes of the community around the business to keep everyone’s interest high and activity flowing.

10.Don’t stop evolving the community and its features. The way we communicate with customers and respondents is constantly changing and the community needs to keep up with that. Find out what is new and what else is being done on their other panels and across your industry.