General Mills has "mandate" to do qualitative research online

The following article was posted by Jeffrey Henning on the Vovici blog (  It is an excellent summary of Ned Winsborouogh’s presentation at the MRA’s First Outlook Conference regarding General Mills’ experience with online qualitative and its subsequent “mandate to move as much of our qualitative research online as possible.”  Especially interesting are General Mills findings and how they are adjusting heir online qualitative based on experience.   General Mills is a QualBoard 3.0 user and has found it to be extremely successful for them.


General Mills Moving Qualitative Research Online

Posted by Jeffrey Henning on Fri, Nov 06, 2009

Ned Winsborough, manager of consumer networks at General Mills, presented “Accelerating

Innovation with Social Networks” at the MRA First Outlook Conference. “We have a mandate at

General Mills to move as much of our qualitative research online as possible in the coming months and years. We have been experimenting with this for a year, but we created our consumer networks team this summer and are now scaling it.” (Consumer networks is the term that General Mills uses for MROCs.)

General Mills has done 22 community projects since last spring. Why online communities? “Online consumer communities meet the needs of consumers, brand teams and agencies with busy lives. They allow you to innovate with consumers better, faster, and cheaper.” With communities, General Mills is able to engage in iterative building of concepts: “We listen, we build; we listen, we tweak. This can be done very quickly, with a lot of flexibility to the method.” Community research allows for faster speed to market. For one project, General Mills did six months of work in six weeks. Compared to other qualitative methods, communities are less expensive. “There is a fixed cost for setting up the communities, which can be very significant, but the incremental cost of doing extra weeks, extra moderation, is very low.”


As a result of General Mills’ 22 projects, they have made changes to their approach to community research:

  • Focus on Discovery – The General Mills innovation model uses three steps: Discover, Build, Launch. The communities are great for Discovery but less suited for the Build phase. In the Discovery phase, community research always works, according to Ned, whether the project is big or small, whether the tolerance for risk is high or low. In the Build phase, small projects can be supported with community research but larger projects require traditional quantitative research. For future community research, “we are focusing on Discovery.”
  • Smaller Communities – Early communities were larger (for example, 225 participants), but that produced too much information to quickly and easily analyze. “Now we work with communities of 30 to 50 people (more if we have subgroups we want to investigate). With fewer members, we really get to know them as individuals, and we can probe better.”
  • Shorter Duration Communities – General Mills has moved from a permanent online community to project-based communities that last for six to eight weeks. “This is a different model than creating one ongoing community. We have some experience with that type of community: we had done that in the past but found it wasn’t cost effective.” The ongoing moderation activities can be significant, yet “it is rare that we have things that we need to do every week.”
  • Larger Incentives – Members to an early community were offered $50 for six weeks participation and a chance to win some modest prizes. Current incentives tend to run $40-50 per week.
  • Geographically Centered – For one of its first project communities, General Mills invited seven local participants to come to their facility for shelf tests and project packaging tests. Now, General Mills “uses focus group facilities to recruit members, so that we can do selective face to face research.”

Ned has heard everything from “traditional research is dead” to skepticism about the value of online community research. “The truth is in the middle,” he said. “It has a place, and we need to approach it like any other new technology. What questions can it answer? What objectives can it meet? What objectives can’t it meet? Where can it fit in an array of methods? It certainly doesn’t obsolete core quantitative methods but it has powerful potential to transform qualitative research as we know it.”

  1. Love this approach. Makes perfect sense to use communities for discovery phase, even screening of many ideas. Gen Mills is always at the forefront of new methods and techniques.

  2. It makes sense to me that to the extent consumers are comfortable with the online platform (blogging, chat rooms, sharing photos, etc.) that the qualitative process and findings are improved over offline methods. Online at home, work, or even mobile people can be in their natural environment where they are more connected to the product use and purchase.
    In the General Mills case, how are the participants recruited and screened?
    What is the typical retention rate from the beginning of the community exercise through to its completion?

  3. Intuitively, these discoveries make sense. One feature of MROC’s driving these conclusions is the ability to segment the audience and create subgroups. It is great to have a large panel from which to draw, but realistically one can only manage 15-50 for good qualitative feedback. Selecting a subgroup for specific projects facilitates continuity and progressive learning critical for product development. Last, pulling a geographical subgroup is great for food companies: once you’ve gone down the concept and product refinement routes, pull some people together to a facility and give them some real food to taste.

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