"The problem with market research is that, while it can generate some pretty actionable insights, it's expensive," says Josh Bernoff at the Groundswell blog. "If you do surveys, it's always a struggle to get enough people to generate a large enough sample without breaking the bank—and when the survey's done, pray you don't find out that there was some question you forgot to ask." Focus groups, while equally effective, can also produce steep bills when properly funded.

For companies that want to conduct market research with their target audience on a regular basis, and without breaking the bank, the answer might be community research. The idea is simple—it's much like an open-ended focus group—and relies on 300 to 1,000 customers who gather online to answer your inquiries and converse with each other.

"You can ask follow-up questions to get clarification or more detail," explains Bernoff. "You can look at the profiles of members, to put their questions in context. And most interestingly, you can see what they want to talk about."

Though a good value compared with traditional forms of market research, community research isn't cheap, he notes, and outsourcing administration to an outside vendor can cost six figures.

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