Proprietary Panels – SPECIAL REPORT

A new area in the on-line research industry, that has not so far hit the headlines in Asia, is that of Community Panels, sometimes known as ‘Private Research Community Panels’.  While ‘access panels’ rely on people being recruited to take part in a wide range of surveys for different clients and product areas, Community Panels are usually category- or company-specific.  For example airlines have large databases of Frequent Flyers, and these members can become their panelists giving specific feedback on the airline or perhaps on more general travel and tourism related subjects.

Jason Smith, President of Innovation at Vision Critical (one of the leading companies in the Community Panel space) comments “the big difference with Community Panels is that these surveys become part of a corporation’s on-going relationship with their customers. It is like the client having a fish tank of respondents who you can feed and watch grow over time – the customer becomes an internal sounding board where customers are surveyed one or two times a month”.

Such panels yield far higher responses too – usually around 40-45% compared to less than 10% for traditional access panels.  Another benefit of such panels is that the client already has a bank of information on the customer, meaning each survey does not need to ask long and tedious profiling questions and can immediately home in on the topics that are relevant and interesting to the respondent.  This is particularly important if clients are using these panels for more frequent surveys with customers.

Community Panels generally started at the same time as on-line research, i.e. about 10 years ago.  However they have really gained significant traction in the last 5 years as clients became more aware of how ‘time compressed’ customers have become, with clients needing to rely more on shorter but consequently more frequent surveys to meet their overall research needs.  Jason Smith from Vision Critical comments “at the outset the market research agencies were not too interested in Proprietary Panels, so that forced us to go direct to the end clients and also to set up our own insights division that competes head on with the MR agencies.  We now work with clients such as HP, Kodak, Blackberry, Marriot, Quantas, and MTV Networks.  In Asia we are working with partner agencies such as Synovate and more recently, with Kadence International.”

One reason why MR agencies initially rejected Community Panels was perceived bias.  The argument was that customers who opt in to a panel for a specific brand are generally brand advocates and are therefore not representative of the broader customer base.  However, this argument really missed the point – Community Panels are part of a broader range of research tools that clients can call on.  Smith reports that clients tend to use Community Panels as a source of rapid fire feedback with customers, which is good for testing out new ideas or campaigns, perhaps prior to a much broader survey.

It’s all about presentation and content:

One of the success factors of Community Panels is that the survey sites can be highly customized to the brand.   The Lead Article touched on the importance of design of on-line surveys and how clever use of visuals can be used to engage the respondent in the survey.  With Community Panels, the client can invest more up front in setting out the framework for on-line surveys with attractive designs, for what will become their own on-line dialogue with customers for a multitude of surveys.

But content is also crucial.  Irrelevant or boring surveys can disenfranchise these communities.  While financial incentives are still used in Community Panels, the content itself can be enough to encourage participation.  Asia Research itself conducts its own surveys into the research industry without financial incentives through our own ‘community’ of 3,500 research professionals.  Special interest groups such as sports fans are more than willing to share their views on the latest developments in football or baseball.  Likewise fashion lovers want to be heard concerning their views on the latest developments in the topics they love.

Aside from lowering the costs of surveys, qualitative feedback from Community Panels is often much richer giving much better insight into consumer sentiment.  The limitations though are that Community Panels tend to be limited to ‘big brands’ or ‘special interest groups’.  While an Apple user is a great target for such panels, you are unlikely to sell the concept of Community Panels to a manufacturer of copier paper!

In 2010, around 60 percent of the top brands in the US have some form of online community.  Early adopters of such panels in Asia will have first mover advantage.