Shopper Market Research Firm Taps Social Community

Core4 brings customer research panels online while also putting a mobile app in the hands of secret shoppers.
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What do people buy, and why do they buy it? Market researchers have explored this puzzle for decades, but Core4 Research of Fayetteville, Ark., has found that online social communities can often provide better answers.

"There's no replacing having a shopper researcher in the store," said Henry Ho, one of the partners who co-founded Core4 more than a decade ago, after leaving market research jobs at Proctor & Gamble. Yet with market research online communities, "the speed and the cost and the access we have to shoppers online--there's no replacing that, either. The only thing better than that is the mobile platform."

Core4's customers are consumer products companies as well as retailers. The company studies the behavior of shoppers--the people who actually go into stores and make purchases--as opposed to consumers defined more broadly. Core4 continues to use traditional methods such as sending researchers on shop-along expeditions to observe and question shoppers, seeking insight into what products, prices, and store displays are most attractive. They send ethnographic researchers into homes to ask about laundry needs and baby diapers.

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"I would never discount traditional methods, because once inside a consumer's home, you have an hour to see things and ask questions. Traditional research tends to be very deep," Ho said. On the other hand, it's time-consuming. "There's a lot of research that doesn't take weeks or months. We can bring it back in hours or days," he said.

Core4 is not doing the sort of online market research that involves trolling through Twitter mentions, looking for trends in positive or negative sentiment related to a brand. Instead, it invites online panels of shoppers into online communities, and those people are screened for a set of criteria the same way they would be for an offline focus group.

Core4 uses software from Telligent as the basis for its online communities. While Core4 considered creating its own online community software, it picked Telligent as the best of several commercially available options it evaluated. "Telligent turned out to be a great partner. They met about 80% of our needs, and we worked with them to develop the rest," Ho said.

The social nature of the online communities, where participants converse with each other and riff off each other's ideas in conversations that can go on for days or weeks, brings out different insights than one-on-one conversations with researchers, Ho said. Similarly, surveys can be valuable when you ask the right questions, but you can't easily go back and ask follow- up questions or continue a conversation the way you can online, he said.

"The community creates the conversations, and we have trained community managers and researchers who can pick out words that represent emotion," Ho said. Clients will often use both an online community and in-person focus groups to research the same questions, using one to refine the approach with the other and making sure that what they hear online is similar to what they hear face-to-face, he said. "There is no one perfect methodology to get the best answer, but clients who have an online community can have it function as an insight nuggets generator."

For its mobile application, known as Field Agent, Core4 created its own app, which claims bragging rights as "the first iPhone app that pays you," rather than you paying to download it, Ho said. "Many of our agents use it to pay their iPhone bill."

The Field Agent business, which is run as a subsidiary, pays shoppers to go into stores and record their impressions on the spot or use the app to send back photos of store displays. An Android version of the App is in beta, and Field Agent will be coming to other mobile operating systems as well, Ho said.

"We can do ethnographic research for pennies on the dollar," Ho said. "If our client wants a better understanding of breakfast, we can have people lay out their breakfast routine and take a picture of what they eat for breakfast in the morning." That's the difference between "getting into a consumer's home for $20 or $25, versus spending $1,000-plus to get into one consumer's home," he said.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard

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