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How much do you know about your customers right now, at this moment?

A lot of companies can show you composite profiles that describe their target customers, including job titles, needs, obligations, and goals. No doubt about it: It's important to know those things. But relying solely on such information to connect with customers is like trying to strike up a conversation with a cardboard cutout. It just isn't enough.

Your customers are real people. Their needs, concerns, and motivations are dynamic and likely changing rapidly in this climate as a result of layoffs, budget cuts, and general worries about the state of the economy.

Now, more than ever, you need to know what your customers are thinking from day to day, what they need and what they want, what motivates them, how the economic decline has affected them, and what they'll be ready to buy on the upslope. This knowledge is crucial for weathering the economic storm. Not only that, it can lead to breakthrough success after the storm passes.

The good news is that despite the tough economic times many companies are demonstrating the importance of focusing on market research—figuring out new ways of connecting with customers, learning from them, and getting results without drastically increasing their budgets.

Among the chief marketing officers and senior marketers surveyed in a recent Forrester Research report, 47% are tapping into customer communities and increasing their use of social media to gather, test, and market ideas. In addition, 50% are testing new innovations on a small scale first, to make innovation processes more efficient and cost-effective.

These marketing executives know how critical it is to keep market research in place. More than ever, they need those precious insights that will guide sound business decisions, drive product innovation, and improve marketing. So they're using online customer communities as a faster, more cost-effective way to gather qualitative insights.

How are they doing it? By implementing the following three methods.

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John Kembel is cofounder and CEO of HiveLive (www.hivelive.com) and a consulting associate professor and strategy board member at TheHasso Platner Institute of Design (the "d.school") at Stanford University. Reach him at john@hivelive.com.