Using online market research panels

The main source of respondents for internet research are now online panels. These are pools of willing participants that are contacted to take surveys, often for money or a points reward. Panels can also be used for specialist audiences, such as physicians or medical practioners, some business professions and other hard to reach groups. Panels also make the co-ordination of international research far easier, though there are still issues of culture and behaviour to consider.

Consumer panels

For consumer research, online panels provide a quick and easy method of getting in contact with a sample of customers. Panel providers such as Lightspeed GMI, Toluna, ResearchNow, SSI, Netquest and many others offer the possibility of either putting a survey on their site or linking an external surveys and collecting consumer responses. The panels are large enough, that for specialist or more targetted groups of consumers it is possible to use a short screener questionnaire to filter down to subgroups that would be uneconomic using other research methods.

In the main the panels work by offering respondents a rewards in terms of a voucher or points or a prize draw to complete a survey. Most panels have a threshold level before respondents can redeem their reward and rules about how often respondents will be asked to take part in online surveys. The quality of panelists is always a question - in the past disreputable companies harvested email addresses and then spammed invites. Modern panels require double opt ins and have much more ethical recruitment practices. However, there are still some firms out there that prey on the opportunity to make money doing things like charging people for lists of research companies. No research company will ever charge for someone to become a panelist.

The other problem with a research panel is that the incentives encourage 'professional respondents' who are just interested in the money. There is a temptation for respondents to sign up under a number of different names and email addresses. Again high quality panels have methods for screening duplicate respondents and those who are not completing the survey adequately. For instance, consistency of answers across surveys, or for studies like conjoint analysis, consistency of answers within the survey. Good research panels take care over the quality of their respondents and will be very happy to share details of their quality procedures.

Specialist panels

The other major innovation in panels is the use of specialist panels. The main area that this has been developed is in pharmaceutical market research, where access to doctors, physicians and other health care practioners is otherwise difficult and has strong ethical rules over the types of contact possible. However, panels are available for a range of specialisms, for example in business-to-business markets, IT or telecoms professionals. The recruitment method for these types of groups is often more sophisticated and more expensive than a straight consumer panel as it will typically involve a telephone contact with the respondent either at the outset, to invite someone to join, or subsequently, as a verification step to confirm bona fides. For this reason specialist panels are much more expensive than consumer research. However, they are still comparatively less than the equivalent telephone interview and being online it means that interviews can be carried out at the time and place of the respondent's choosing.

Consumer lists

An alternative to using an external panel is to use an internal customer list. Again, this is common in business-to-business research where product areas can be too specialist for a general purpose panel, even one looking at B2B. There are legal and ethical requirements when using internal lists, particularly in Europe where there are strong Data Protection laws (particularly Germany). The list itself must be an opt-in list and you will need to inform the respondent where their contact details came from - though this can be later in the survey. You will also need to think about how you avoid over-researching (ie contacting the same person too often) and provide methods for handling queries and complaints. For proper market research, the research should be carried out anonymously, which would mean using an external agency. Again, it is necessary to be aware of Data Protection issues.

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