This blog post was originally published on GreenBookBlog.org.
Are the best days of online research panels behind us?
Research fieldwork methodologies come and go. Postal panels, central location interviewing and CATI all had their moments, but are now outmoded. By all indications, the peak of online panel research was more than five years ago when we had large, responsive, deeply profiled panels. Today, panels are less responsive; respondents do not remain in panels as long and two key benefits of panels, sample selection and panel profiling processes, have largely been replaced by lower quality dynamic pre-screening and respondent allocation algorithms.
When researchers made the transition from CATI to online research, the rationale for change was that online was faster and cheaper; however, not necessarily better. As we now transition from samples drawn from research panels to a traffic allocation method using generic respondent sourcing, the industry is making a similar decision to favor speed, cost and efficiency over research quality. Still, I think that a sustainable research panel model will yet emerge; it will just not be designed to support bulk survey completions as its primary function, but will be based upon permissioned access to a range of research information gathered from a cooperative and engaged panel.
The Role of Panels Today
Research panels have splintered into a wide range of panel types, each dedicated to one primary purpose as described below:
- Online Access panels today are primarily used to get survey completions, although they are also used to find respondents for other panel types. In my classification, only panels explicitly created and marketed to respondents as research panels fit here.
- Purchase panels are designed to measure purchases over time from FMCG to electronics and these panels support research services for both manufacturers and retailers.
- Consumption and Usage panels focus on such things as the ingredients you use to prepare a meal or the face care regimen that you use.
- Measurement panels track television, radio and internet usage and historically have been pure currency panels that could not support other research services, but that will change, perhaps not for the currency panels themselves but other panels will offer these measurement capabilities.
- Community panels are similar to market research panels but tend to focus on understanding client and customer behavior. Increasingly, these will be combined with market research panels
The most obvious change facing the industry is the decline of online access panels in favor of various methods of amalgamating respondent sources and allocating them to studies, these methods now account for the majority of industry survey volume. To be clear, some clients do have a distinct preference for research panel respondents and the market will continue to provide for their needs, but a large part of the market has moved to lower cost, lower quality methods.
Over the next five years we will see similar disruption in the other types of research panels as bar code scanning apps proliferate; we will see more competition in the purchase panel area. I believe that we will see explosive growth in various types of usage and consumption diaries as mobile devices open up new methods of data capture. Similarly, measurement panels will need to adapt to changes in the way media is consumed and distributed. As the technology behind community panels becomes more widespread and less complex, we will see a new set of competitors emerge.
Future research panels will be smaller, but will serve many purposes. What the market wants is not distinct single-purpose research panels that are cost optimized for a specific function, such as pumping out survey completes, but rather a true multi-purpose research panel that can provide a range of insights and solve a range of related business issues.
There have been many attempts at a single-source panel that captures a range of marketing stimuli and the resultant actions of those stimuli. These single-source panels were commercial successes but operational nightmares due to the cost and complexity of running them. Thanks to advances in technology and data storage, these multi-purpose panels will become more manageable and popular again. The research panels of the future will gain the access and trust of a relatively small group of respondents (in the tens of thousands) and gain access to a range of carefully curated data streams. These respondents will enjoy participating in a variety of research related tasks, from maintaining mobile diaries to involvement in discussion forums for which they are fairly compensated. They will also complete surveys, allow their media and purchases to be tracked, their debit and credit cards to be scraped along with their utility and mortgage bills.
Trust is the key ingredient driving the future of research panels; it can be earned by establishing a strong brand that treats respondents well. Trust is critical as we ask respondents for ever more invasive access to personal data.
I see the research market heading in two directions simultaneously: towards smaller, well managed research panels that attract loyal members that are willing to share their thoughts and behaviors in an environment where their input is valued and appreciated. The second direction entails large database marketing and loyalty firms that have large groups of people for which they capture data which is unrelated to research, but as a byproduct of those marketing activities, there is the opportunity to collect some useful consumer insights.
It is essentially a Small Data versus Big Data debate. I think the multi-faceted research panels will lead to a wining Small Data strategy, likewise Big Data will play an important part in the future of research, but I think those types of insights will be more closely tied to specific marketing execution. The future of panels is bright, but they need to return to what made them special; quality, representative samples, trusting and satisfied members and a diverse range of research activities. If we do not head swiftly in the Small Data direction, we risk losing the skilled people in the industry that understand how to properly build and manage research panels.