Market research panels: what are they, and how to adapt them for the mobile age

3 October 2022 | 6 min read | Written by Kelvin Claveria

Market research panels have changed a lot in the last decade.

They’ve gone from being a ‘nice to have’ addition to a research department’s toolkit, to being a core and integral way that research, marketing, and product teams drive insights for their companies.

They’ve gone from being focused on long-form surveys with formal language, to being more fun and engaging. And they’ve gone from being strictly web and email-based, to now being mostly mobile and chat-based. 

What is a market research panel?

A market research panel is a group of individuals who have agreed to provide ongoing feedback through online surveys or chats, focus groups, in-depth interviews, and other research-related activities.

Also known as research panels, they have become one of the most enduring tools in the industry. According to the 2022 GRIT Report, more than 60% of research buyers and suppliers today use this methodology.

One of the biggest reasons why market research panels remain popular? Their effectiveness.

When done right, a panel can deliver incredible benefits, including the following: 

  • Help you capture longitudinal data from a community of pre-profiled consumers
  • Provide cost efficiency on sample, recruitment, and other market research expenses
  • Drive agility and speed by giving you access to an always-on community of people ready to give their feedback
  • Improving affinity for your brand

Today, market research panels are more commonly known as “insight communities,” “research communities,” or simply “communities.”

While the core concept of a panel remains, insight communities place an additional focus on having more meaningful interactions with community members.

Increasingly, leading companies are using the power of mobile in their insight communities and research panels to positively impact every aspect of the member experience—from recruitment, to survey design, to how feedback is shared with members.

So how can you harness the power of mobile to optimize your own research panel? We’ve outlined four best practices to consider.

4 ways to get more out of your market research panel:

  1. Connect with people where they are, in real time
  2. Capture video and photos to uncover richer insights
  3. Talk to people in a conversational manner
  4. Take an iterative, agile approach

Curious about these best practices? Let's dive in with each one below.

Connect with people where they are, in real-time

We’re standing in line at the grocery store—we check our phones. We’re in between meetings at work—we check our phones. We’re waiting for the water to boil—we, well, you get the point... 

The average person spends nearly five hours, that’s one-third of their waking hours, on their phone. For many of us, those aren’t consecutive hours. Those are ten minutes here, four minutes there. They’re chunks of time, or "micro-moments" that add up to a significant amount of our day.

If you have a market research panel, you need to capitalize on these micro-moments, where people are actively turning to their phone to fill idle time.

But to do so, you need to rethink the member experience and the length of your activities. Long surveys won’t do—shorter activities will work better as they allow members to start and finish the questionnaire in those brief "moments between life."

Another key to tapping into real-time insights, is to reconsider how your panel members are invited to research activities in the first place. SMS invitations typically see faster (and higher) response rates than email invitations. The reason is simple: email inboxes tend to be cluttered. This issue of email overload is particularly true among Gen Zs and Millennials.

If you want to reduce recall bias and get in-the-moment feedback from your research panel, switching to a mobile-first approach is the way to go.

Capture video and photos to get richer insights from your market research panel

Moving research onto mobile opens up doors to insight gathering that simply weren’t feasible with standard email-based surveys. The camera, in particular, provides exciting ways of really getting to know your members and introducing new methodologies in your approach to panel research.

Today, many insight platforms make it easy to ask people to upload videos or photos—qual inputs that really enhance quant data that would otherwise lack context and depth of understanding.

A great example comes from Land O’Lakes, a Purina horse nutrition brand. In one study, they asked their research panel of horse owners to upload a video tour of their barn. The Land O’Lakes team received dozens of videos, providing valuable insight into the different feeding processes owners use.

The research team shared a video showreel with business leads across marketing, product, and packaging, and each department was able to take learnings from the videos and apply them to their planning and product roadmaps.

Previously, Land O’Lakes was only able to conduct barn tours with commercial barns close to cities, since the cost of getting into more rural areas was unsustainable. By collecting video feedback from their research panel, they were able to take a virtual peek into the barns and businesses of their consumers.

The camera provides exciting ways of really getting to know your members and introducing new methodologies in your approach to panel research.

Whether you’re running an IHUT (in-home usage testing), a mobile diary study, or an ad hoc survey, layering in video and images, and leaning into the power of mobile helps provide deeper responses from your consumers. In many cases, those insights are also more candid.

As a study cited in the Wall Street Journal suggests, “consumers tend to convey feelings or thoughts that are more private or intimate on their smartphones.” 

Talk to people in a conversational manner

Think of all the things members of your market research panel might be doing on their phone right now—texting with their friend, writing a clever Instagram caption, sending hilarious memes in their group chat.

Now think about your survey. Does it arrive with a stiff tone, stuffy language, and an introduction like, “Dear [first name], thank you for your participation in our survey. Please complete the below questions to the best of your ability”? If so, it’s time to consider a more conversational approach to match the current experience your members are having on mobile.

At Rival, we often call this process “chattifying” your survey. It’s about ditching formal, very clinical language in favor of shorter activities with a friendlier tone… you know, like how people actually talk to each other. 😅 

Here’s a more specific example. When recruiting members for your research panel, do you start with demographic questions? You’re probably nodding your head “yes” since doing so is considered standard practice in the market research industry.

But here’s the thing: if you think about real conversations, walking up to someone you don’t know and asking for their age and income before anything else is not only weird—it’s also kinda creepy. In real life, you’ll likely use ice breakers—questions like, “what do you think of the party so far?” Context is important, of course, so think of the equivalent of this question in your panel research.

If it’s appropriate for your brand, incorporate more fun into the activities you send to your research panel. Use gifs, memes, and emojis to boost engagement and keep your members coming back. If people truly enjoyed taking part in the research, they’ll be more likely to participate and give their feedback, which in turn can help increase the ROI of your panel.

Use your research panel for an iterative, agile approach to capturing insights

One of the largest mindset shifts when adapting your research panel for mobile is embracing iterative, agile research instead of long-form, one-and-done studies. The goal should always be to continue to learn about members over time, as opposed to getting a one-off snapshot of their thoughts, behaviors, or opinions on that one specific day.

Collecting insights iteratively through shorter, more frequent conversational surveys provides an important benefit: it allows you to get a more accurate picture of the members and their attitudes or behavior around a certain topic.

To get the most out of your market research panel, you need to align your approach to the behaviors and expectations of consumers.

For example, if you’re asking about their attitudes toward credit cards, they may have just had a conversation with their friend who is having trouble with their debt, or just read an article about how consumer trends are favoring the use of debit cards now.

Either way, recency bias is an important thing to consider. Engaging your members about this topic regularly and using progressive profiling can help deliver a more complete and accurate picture of how their attitudes, behaviors, and habits evolve over time.

Taking an agile approach and following up with additional questions about a topic also allows members to come back with a more thoughtful answer after having had more time to think about the topic.

Of course, to take an iterative approach, you need to use a panel platform that enables you to create dynamic, progressive profiling and lets you recontact community members. It's important to ask about these community capabilities when talking to a market research supplier.

10x the impact of your market research panel

To get the most out of your panel, you need to align your approach to the behaviors and expectations of consumers and allow your research activities to fit seamlessly into their daily lives. Ultimately, that means prioritizing mobile in your approach to panel research.

To learn more about how to optimize your market research panel for mobile, visit our Community page or watch our webinar "Insight Communities: How to 10x your Impact with Mobile-First Approaches."

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Written by Kelvin Claveria

Kelvin Claveria (@kcclaveria) is Director of Demand Generation at Rival Technologies.

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