Talent in On-Line Panel Companies

In March 2010, Asia Research interviewed Martin Filz, Regional Director for on-line panel company Research Now, and reports on the HR dynamics in on-line panel companies today.

Martin comments that simply being an ‘on-line’ business tends to attract go getting individuals keen to develop a career in a fast growing and innovative industry. “We have a young and dynamic working environment” Martin comments, “In Asia, we have to cover 8 time zones, so we work hard but we also have a fun working environment.  We put a high proportion of our profit into training and extra-curricula activities such as monthly social and sporting events”.

Although not exclusively a ‘young club’, on-line panel companies are typically populated with people in their mid 20s, contrasting with some of the main stream research companies with ‘more seasoned’ researchers in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.  But like research firms, the industry also attracts more women than men.

Candidates for on-line panel companies generally come from two sources – firstly there is the regular graduate intake.  On-line panel companies are promoting their industry to the next generation of professionals by undertaking speaking engagements at universities, educating students about the existence, role, and application of consumer insight through on-line data collection methods.  This in itself promotes the main stream research industry and can perhaps assist the industry in raising the status of survey research as a career choice for graduates.

The second main source of candidates is from the main stream research industry itself.  A good source of candidates is people who have worked in operations departments of large research agencies.  Filz comments “We find that people who have worked in large CATI units often have the skills we look for, such as good organizational skills, attention to detail, empathy, etc.  Even though we don’t do research, staff with research experience are very useful since they understand the interface between research and the respondent, and are therefore better able to advise clients in aspects such as respondent recruitment and questionnaire design.”

On-line panel companies generally split themselves between ‘Sales’ and ‘Operations’.  Each department requires different HR qualities, but both have well structured career paths.  Sales people need to advise clients and talk around the research considerations.  Clearly salesmanship is also important such as ability to chase business, understand client needs, create empathy with clients, close deals, on so on.

A typical career path in sales would start in a support role to an account manager, and then moving to the account manager position after a period of training and experience in compiling generic prozac quotations and general client management.  From here, the sales person can move onto to a team leader role.  Generally on-line panel companies organize themselves on geographical demarcations, e.g. a team leader might cover clients within a particular city or state, and then move on to become a country manager.  Sometimes sales people would be assigned to regional key accounts, for example where they are managing clients organized in similar roles such as regional account directors within the main stream agencies.  Some panel companies who deal both with research firms and end clients are organized by verticals such as ‘agency’, ‘Government clients’, and specific end-client industry verticals.

For a career in Operations, there are several sub-divisions including ‘Sample Only’ teams, technical teams such as those working in flash development, and ‘Full Service teams’ that manage sample, scripting, hosting, and data processing.  The ‘Sample Only’ teams usually work with research agencies that have their own on-line web-hosting software and data processing – usually the larger firms.  The Full Service teams provide the end-to-end on-line solutions for smaller agencies that do not have on-line capabilities.  Interestingly Martin Filz comments that demand for Full Service is increasing, in the last 12 months rising from 40% of their business to 60% today, indicating that smaller research firms are gaining market share.

On-line panel companies have purposely avoided going into the mainstream research business and as such those people interested in analysis and consumer insight are either not attracted to on-line panel companies or will not last.  Some argue that the on-line panel companies are missing an opportunity by not offering analysis and insight services, but the business managers and investors in these companies see the benefit of the data collection only business model producing fast project turn-around, high cash flow, lower overhead and of course profit.

Contrast this with main stream research agencies who see data collection is a hassle, an unreliable business stream, and who are winding down their field departments.

Although on-line panel companies have become rich in this new research era, talent is not so much attracted by the financial rewards of a career in this industry and usually the financial rewards are no greater than that of main stream research business.  People are attracted to on-line panel companies by the entrepreneurial spirit in these companies, the exposure they get to so many different clients, the dynamic working environment, and the companies’ commitment to training and development.  “We are like a Google and want to act like one!” Martin concludes.