When Brad Bortner, of Forrester, coined the term MROC (Market Research Online Community) in 2009, he defined it as a qualitative tool. This definition has been used widely to define qualitative communities, in contrast to online access panels (large, quant, and minimal community), and in contrast to community panels (large, qual and quant, with community) (Visit VCU to read more about Community Panels).
However, the difference between access panels, community panels, and MROCs may soon be a redundant distinction. One of the reasons that things are changing is that the platforms for conducting research via communities are changing. In the early days of using communities for research, there were essentially two types of platforms, discussion-based systems and panel based systems.
Discussion-based systems, such as forums and bulletin-boards, tended to have good discussion tools, but they had few survey options and few community management tools. This made them ideal for small communities, e.g. 30 to 300, where the overhead of looking after queries, incentives, sampling etc were very simple. Companies that opted for this type of platform tended to stay with a qualitative type of research, making the term MROC, synonymous with both the type of research and the type of software used.
Panel-based systems, such as community panels, started by adapting the panel management and survey software from panels and added a community element. In the early days of community panels, the discussion element was much less developed, partly because of where the software came from and partly because the big money was coming from companies wanting to do surveys.
However, the distinction between an MROC and a community panel has never been entirely clear, with some people using the term MROC for any community that is branded, private, and used solely for market research. This lack of clarity may about to be resolved by the term MROC being used by most people in this more generalised way.
As with the original separation between the term MROC and community panel, the reason for the change relates to the underlying software. The new software that is beginning to emerge is capable of running a vast range of communities. It can support qual research communities, it can support qual & quant research communities, it can support consultative communities, crowdsourcing communities, and probably much more. At the moment, community panels use community panel software and MROCs tend to use MROC software. In the future, I believe, the clients and the researchers will not need to know what type of software is powering their research community.
I suspect that the term MROC (because it is short, punchy, and ambiguous) will be used to refer to any community that is private, branded, and used solely or largely for market research. Of course, each company is likely to develop its own in-house term for their preferred type of MROC, for example insight community, creation community, etc. This is good branding for the company, but they will find it useful to locate their version within the wider range of research communities, i.e. MROCs.
What are your thoughts?