Private Online Research Panels


“Marketing without data is like driving with your eyes closed.” – Dan Zarrella

Private online panels or communities are typically groups of customers (or consumers) that are willing to participate in surveys, focus groups, and other types of research. Generally, a private panel is made up of thousands of customers (or consumers), and are used primarily for surveys, focus groups, and other types of research projects. A private panel tends to have a long life; it can be operated for many years, if new panellists are recruited on a regular basis. It is important that panel members are surveyed often enough (usually, six or more times per year) to keep them involved and interested in the panel.

Private Online Panels versus Online Communities

Private online panels, or communities, are typically groups of customers (or consumers) who are willing to participate in surveys, focus groups, and other types of research.

The terms “panel” and “community” are often used interchangeably, but we think of them as being quite different.

  • Private online panels: Generally, a private panel is made up of thousands of customers (or consumers) and is used primarily for surveys, focus groups, and other types of research projects. A private panel tends to have a long life; it can be operated for many years if new panellists are recruited on a regular basis. It is important that panel members are surveyed often enough (usually, six or more times per year) to keep them involved and interested in the panel. At the same time, too frequent use of panellists must be avoided because of learning and conditioning risks (that is, the panellists might become less representative over time because they learn too much about your company and your brands).
  • Private online communities: Communities are typically smaller than panels (hundreds of participants instead of thousands) and are often organized for a specific purpose and for a limited time. Communities can be surveyed and/or used for online qualitative research, although we like to think of all community-based data as qualitative or directional. Community participants tend to be used frequently (repeatedly again), so participant conditioning becomes a risk over time. Communities are so small that samples cannot be balanced as they might be in a private panel survey. Communities can also be used for non-research purposes, such as new product ideation.

The primary advantages of a company having its own private panel (or community) are reduced costs and, perhaps, more rapid study execution. The cost of a typical survey is reduced 25% to 35% by a private panel.

Private Panel Rationale

The growth in the number of private panels is largely a function of a slow-growth world economy and the corresponding budget pressures within large corporations. The lure of cost-efficiencies prompts most companies to consider private panels. Under optimal conditions, a private online panel can reduce the cost of a typical research project by 25% to 35%.

Falling response rates to online commercial access panels is also a major reason for the adoption of private panels (where response rates tend to be higher). Another major factor is category incidence. If a company’s product is used by only 1% of the population or less, then a private panel of customers might be the only affordable way to do research. Another consideration is the degree of consumer interest in the product category. High-interest product categories are generally better candidates for online private panels (but even low-interest categories can often benefit from private panels).

Types of Research

Private online panels are not appropriate for all types of research. If you are trying to survey a representative sample of all adults, then the private panel is of limited value since it most likely contains only your customers or those interested in your brand, subsets of the total adult population. Many studies, however, can be conducted among your customers or those interested in your brand; it is not a perfect sample, but often it is good enough to help you make the correct decision. It is also possible to recruit noncustomers into private panels, but the recruiting costs for noncustomers can be quite high. Here are some examples of studies commonly conducted via private online panels:

Quantitative

  • Package testing
  • Advertising tests
  • Tagline tests
  • Promotion tests
  • Name testing
  • New product concept tests
  • New product concept screening
  • Product testing
  • Video tests

Qualitative

  • Online focus groups
  • Online depth interviews
  • Mobile ethnography
  • Online forums
  • In-the-moment qualitative

Remember, the basic assumption is that most private panels are largely made up of customers. Private panels generally cannot be used for research studies that require a representative sample.

Advantages

If a private online panel is set up and managed properly, its advantages are:

  • Better Decisions. More marketing questions can be addressed and answered, based on objective consumer feedback.
  • Economy. Surveys via private online panels typically save 25–35% versus the price of traditional online surveys. The savings are even greater for low-incidence categories.
  • Speed. Most surveys are turned around in 14 days (from questionnaire design through final written report). Complicated projects take longer, of course. Having the private panel in place (and all the paperwork and approvals taken care of) means that a company can launch a survey almost instantly in the event of an emergency or urgent need.
  • Accuracy. Private online panels can provide reasonable balanced samples (demographically and geographically).
  • Response Rates. Private panels tend to enjoy much higher response rates, compared to commercial online access panels. This could be a greater advantage in the future if response rates for commercial panels continue to fall.
  • Longevity. Private panels can last for years if new panellists are added on a regular basis and older panellists are removed from the panel.

Best Practices

Companies tend to reap the greatest benefits from a private online panel when it is properly managed and its use is encouraged. Best practices are:

  • Assign one person to be responsible for scheduling, expediting, and coordinating with internal groups or brand teams to keep research projects moving ahead.
  • Consider quarterly omnibus surveys where each group or brand can submit a question or two.
  • Charge the private panel is cost to a central marketing budget so that it is “free” to individual brands or groups. If the studies are “free,” brands are eager to do as many studies as possible (and thereby make better decisions).
  • Simplify the approval process so that a group or brand team can launch a private panel survey with minimum paperwork (no purchase orders, no elaborate approval processes).
  • Standardize often-repeated types of studies so that the organization learns over time what the answers mean.
  • Create a database of normative data for the standardized studies so that results have greater value and meaning.

 Setting Up Your Private Panel

If you think a private panel might be appropriate for your brand or your company, please contact us.

“Marketing without data is like driving with your eyes closed.” – Dan Zarrella

 

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