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Turn Fandom into Human Insight With a Participant Panel

Your company has fans. Create a customer community to centralize and organize them.


The very best products and services are those that commit to deeply understanding their customers’ needs and solving for (and even anticipating) them. The best way to do that is with regular customer engagement—via unstructured check-ins and structured research. 

Your customers are more likely than ever to be communing with like-minded others. These communities are a critical source of the feedback and insight you need to create fans. By leveraging a participant panel tool and a simple opt-in form, you can leverage the energy of fandoms and channel it into a centralized feedback engine.

Don’t miss the insight opportunity that customer communities and fandoms offer. 

Read on to learn more and get started building a rolling human insights generator.

Customer communities matter

Companies need to connect with and learn from their customers regularly. This connection can (and should) take many forms: 

  • Unstructured feedback opportunities (“How was platform onboarding?”)
  • Structured user research (“Let’s get your impression of a new feature.”)
  • Account check-ins (“How might we better support your team’s needs?”)

However you choose to do it, talking to customers is critical, especially in today’s marketplace, where competition is long and attention is short. Frameworks such as Teresa Torres’s “continuous discovery” help companies facilitate ongoing, rolling customer interactions so that it—customer centricity—becomes an organization-wide habit.

Here’s the thing: your customers are already grouping—or looking for spaces to do so if none exist. This is an energy you can (and should) leverage into an affordable, always-on, insights hub.

Before digging into the steps to create a community, let’s briefly review how we got here.

Myth: A brand community is a marketing strategy. The Reality: A brand community is a business strategy.  ~Susan Fournier and Lara Lee, Harvard Business Review

Fans and customers tend to form communities 

The internet supercharged many core aspects of human behavior, maybe none greater than finding like-minded others and the attendant positive emotions (what researchers term “homophily”). Aided by social media in all its versions—from forums like Reddit to text-based apps like Discord—there are countless ways folks cluster and re-cluster. These communities create their own codes and modes of communication, which is a wealth of information for the brands behind the products and services creating the fans.

And folks can be fans of just about anything. Although the term is traditionally applied to sport, media, art, and consumer brands (like fashion or tech devices), the structure of social media has created a where people can group themselves by attributes like role (research ops leads), industry (fintech researchers), and even software usage(Notion-ers). That is welcome news for teams who want unfiltered, ongoing feedback from engaged customers.

Some of the fastest-growing, most popular software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms (like Figma, Trello, Notion, and Miro) have all nurtured communities to organize and centralize their fandoms, betting that teams from support and marketing to design and product will benefit from organic input.

But not all companies—let alone teams—have the budget, bandwidth, or buy in to create such communities. Enter the participant panel or insights community software space.

These communities are ideal insight hubs

Companies need to tread carefully into communities. Although openness is a hallmark of many fandoms, there is a commitment to maintain independence from the fan source; in other words, many fandoms want influence but don’t want to be monitored or controlled. An Amazon Ads study investigating the business potential of fandoms reports that 63% of surveyed fans agree companies can “get involved with their fandom as long as they make an effort to understand it.”

Social listening is one way companies attempt to manage the tension between independence and influence with fan communities. Social listening offers teams a view into trends and insight from afar (often via third-party dashboards), obviating the need for a marketing or brand person posting the question, “What does everyone think of [insert feature]?” into a general channel or community space. But social listening, although helpful, is a mostly passive, wait-and-see activity. There are more active options.

Many companies have gone a step further and created their own space for customers. These go by many names (market research online communities, participant panels, insights communities, research CRMs), which speaks to this approach’s influence and utility for a range of industries and company types. 

Although some companies opt for DIY or custom-built community/panels, there is a robust middle occupied by SaaS platforms. These tools are built with flexibility, scalability, and interoperability in mind. In other words, they help teams of all sizes start capitalizing on the natural inclinations of customers to gather.

Try the #1 rated customer panel platform for free today.

Here are just a few of the ways a participant or customer panel/community tool improves on the social listening model:

  1. It’s active. Customers join the group (more on that below), giving your team more control over the “rules of engagement” as it were. You decide when and how to ping.
  2. It’s official. Company design, branding, and engagement from teammates gives it an authorized feel (compared to third-party tools), and your team controls data flows.
  3. It’s ready for research. The best tools offer flexibility in connecting with customers via interviews, surveys, product feedback sessions…however the team needs to learn.
  4. It’s built with business in mind. Logistics can thwart customer research plans. The best panel tools include form management, scheduling, messaging, and incentives.
  5. It’s secure. These aren’t social media platforms, so SOC2, GDPR, and other data privacy compliances are a must: your customers (and legal team) will thank you.
“To find, keep, and grow your customers, you must know your customers. To know your customers, you must listen to what they say and observe what they do. Part of the arsenal of tools that can help you accomplish this: online communities.”  ~Amy Bills, Forrester

Take action by creating a customer community

First, talk with stakeholders to lay groundwork for wider impact

Given the cross-functional impact of a well-designed and implemented customer panel or community, it’s critical to begin by connecting with stakeholder partners who would benefit from learning more about customers.. Prioritize the usual suspects: sales, marketing, success, support, design, product, and engineering. 

This might look like a short form or poll (or even an internal comms DM) sent to teammates asking if they made a decision recently that would have been improved with customer input, data, or engagement. 

That way you can say things like: “Hey, remember when you [PM] didn’t know whether customers would like X or Y? Well I’ve curated an engaged group of them to help you on the next one.” 

This will go much further than a generic, “Hey I created this thing will you use it?”

Second, clarify the purpose of the community

Reflect on the mission or charter of the community. What you don’t want here is an amorphous, squishy, “Build one to build one” rationale for your panel. Even if that mission changes, starting with a goal will help both your stakeholders and customers feel more confident using and participating.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. Which teams at your comapny will/should interact with the community?
  2. How often can panel members expect to collaborate with them?
  3. What kinds of activities will they take part in?
  4. Who is in charge of sharing learnings with the rest of the company?

The best thing about customer panels is that you can—with the right tool—segment your users in a way that creates multiple uses within the same community. 

Here are some established panel use cases to consider:

  • Customer Advisory Boards: These are typically composed of a smaller set of high-value customers (so valued because of their persona, spending, engagement, or a combination of all three). The frequency of engagement is lower but higher touch. An example might be a quarterly sync with VPs of product, design, and/or engineering. The goal is to curate a group of customers you’d like to have more of and learn about them deeply: from decision making and budget priorities to team structures and patterns of hiring.
  • User behavior or persona-based: Many times, product design and engineering teams want to know more about a specific subset of your customers. This might be based on product usage or even a demographic detail. 
  • Account and support team training: Many customer panels are used to improve onboarding, support, and service elements. This is especially relevant for B2B companies, but nailing the experience of a first consumer goods order is another great example. Targeting customers who have recently signed up, made a purchase, or even churned (left the product) are all great moments around which to recruit and connect with customers. (Check your stakeholder notes: did they mention this as a pain point or decision in need of more customer input?)
  • Feedback and support: This is maybe the oldest way to organize a customer community, but is increasingly popular with more “blank slate” or customizable software tools, where education around use cases are often led by customers themselves. This is the model Figma, Trello, Notion, and Miro employ. Importantly, it requires that customers be able to see and respond to one another. It also requires some way of acting on feedback; giving customers an officially-branded place to yell into the void should not be the goal. It can, however, be a useful way to surface emerging product bugs and prioritize feature development.
“Research shows that relationship quality with the brand in online brand communities is a key determinant of brand loyalty. Brands that build relationships with users survive longer and have improved user loyalty and commitment.”  ~Kaylee Somerville, The Decision Lab

Third, decide how the community will be built and managed

Although fuller consideration of panel building and managing is outside the focus of this article, there are many helpful guides to starting a community, whether you take a DIY or a  best-in-class platform approach. 

Many panel software platforms offer free trials for a certain number of customers, allowing you to maximize their operational and logistical benefits in the short-term. It’s also easier to scale with a dedicated platform compared to DIY, which should happen if you’ve completed step one and mapped customer feedback to company-wide decision needs.

Fourth, give new community members something to do

No fan wants to be invited to a new community only to find it…dead. Before inviting any customer or brand fan, line up something for them to do. Ideally, this something would map to one of the requests you learned about in step one, but it could also be a more general feedback activity that is still relevant and—important—useful to your company. Maybe it’s a brand feedback survey, a series of (short) interviews about a recent release, or a quick meet-and-greet with the product and design team. 

Whatever you choose, have something in line for folks to do when they land in the community. If nothing else, create an email describing the nature and purpose of the community that is sent to customers after they’ve joined.

Fifth, make it easy for the right people to join

An opt-in form is the industry-standard for sourcing customer panels and communities. (Read all about how to use opt-in forms here).

An opt-in form is your first impression with a customer. Remember to be:

  1. Clear about what you’re asking
  2. Transparent in the ways you’ll engage with customers
  3. As detailed as you can be about how their data will be utilized

It’s worth noting that opt-in forms are  especially useful if your customers are already gathering in communities organically. A good opt-in form can be shared in groups across social media, with administrators or leaders of such self-organized groups, and certainly across your own social media platforms where you know customers gather. In this way, an opt-in form can attract interested customers or fans, while still respecting the existing communities.

“UX design not only helps foster customer satisfaction but can also turn customers into fans. Satisfied customers are more likely to provide positive feedback through reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations, which positively impacts your business’s brand perception and bottom line.”  ~Tara Urso, UX matters

Finally, grow your panel’s visibility

Spreading the word about the customer panel or community will be key to its stickiness and value. This means promoting your panel internally (with stakeholders) and externally (in the places and spaces your customers gather: those organic communities).

Internal panel promotion

Have a plan for sharing quick wins with not only the stakeholder groups you pinged at the start, but the wider company. 

There are lots of formats or modes of sharing learnings (see examples here and here), but the channel is equally as important. For example:

  • Are there customer feedback or insights channels with your company’s communications tool (e.g., Slack or Team)? 
  • Does your research, product, or design team hold regular shareouts or sync to surface feedback, learnings, or questions? (If none exist, could you start one?)
  • What about an internal “newsletter” hosted in a repository tool such as Notion, sharing learnings and updates on the community (e.g., size and breakdown)?

No insight is too small to share, especially if it can be linked to an ongoing project, objective, or goal. Customer-centered companies don’t only conduct a lot of research—they also encourage all teams to interact, engage, and learn from customers as a habit. Socializing the potential impact of your community is a strong first step in building such company habits.

External panel promotion

You need to add new perspectives and voices to keep a panel fresh. Many organic fandoms grow via word-of-mouth (or, increasingly in our AI app ecosystem, recommendations) and yours will not likely have that from the start. But you still need to add new perspectives and voices to keep a panel fresh. 

Sharing the community with other communities is a critical step in maintaining and sustaining your panel. Here are a few tactics to try:

  • Share (carefully) with existing customer communities: “Carefully” because you don’t want to imply that existing networks aren’t still useful or relevant for folks…they are! Instead, frame yours as another way to share feedback, but one with a direct line to the product, design, and engineering decision makers. This might mean dropping an opt-in form in an “Announcements” channel or sub-section of a forum. Be clear with all the details of the community, such as why it was created (e.g., “We saw the energy surrounding our product and wanted to contribute in our own way.”).
  • Create a dedicated landing page: This is how many of the biggest brands promote their research communities. Typically the page will outline (at a high level) the goals and benefits of the community and then link to the opt-in form to learn more (see an example from Atlassian below).
  • Post on social media: Your brand’s social media accounts to solicit customers is a critical promotion channel. Some customers, for example, might be less likely to join an unofficial group, but would jump at the chance to have a clearer line of communication to a company.
  • Ask your customer-facing teammates: Teams like sales, account, marketing, and support are regularly communicating with customers and should be partners in sharing the news about the community. Support tickets, quarterly business reports, and even demo calls are all opportunities to build a bridge and invite your users to join the community.
LinkedIn message soliciting Atlassian customers to join a research panel.
An example of promoting a community on social (Atlassian).
Screenshot of text describing how to join the Atlassian research group.
Atlassian’s opt-in form, which lives on a standalone landing page.

With some planning, research, and internal coordination, a customer community can be an invaluable decision-driving resource for your company. It harnesses the natural inclination for users to gather and marries it with your organization’s need for rolling insights. Start one today to foster a culture of customer engagement across your company. 

(BTW we can help.)

Ben Wiedmaier
Senior Content Marketing Manager
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