That seemingly simply question is one I have been asked more than a dozen times this year already, and it’s only the first day of March.
One of the reasons that people ask me this question is that they know how strongly I believe that MROCs (online research communities) and community panels (especially client owned versions) are going to perform in 2010 and 2011.
Whist none of us has a crystal ball; here is my shot at looking at the near future (i.e. the next two years):
- Whilst MROCs will grow, I do not see them making a major dent in the number of online access panel surveys and interviews, perhaps a 1% loss for panels.
- I think access panels will lose quite a bit of ground to community panels over the next two years, perhaps 10%-15% of their business.
- I think access panels will lose some ground to new alternatives, such as mobile, social networks, and river sampling, perhaps 5%-10% of their business.
- I think that these new entrants will increase the price pressure on online access panels, resulting in stable or declining prices for sample.
- However, I think online access panels will continue to take business from face-to-face and telephone, almost offsetting their losses to community panels and the newer alternatives.
- I also think there will be a growth in the merging of the DIY trend and the online panel trend, with more clients either scripting their own surveys and using panels (perhaps building on the Toluna QuickSurveys model) or by sending the questionnaire spec to the panel company and asking them to perform a field and tab function (something which has been growing for a while now).
So, where does all that net out? I suspect that online access panels may be near the top of their curve in terms of the proportion of total market research they account for. Although they will continue to gain new slices of business at one end, business will be going out of the bucket at the other end, to in-house panels and new sample options. In two years I suspect they will be slightly smaller than now, in five years, much smaller.
The business climate for panels will get even harder with expectations for prices to stay stable or even fall and for quality to continue to increase.
The one big plus for panels is that I expect many research buyers to become increasingly comfortable with the idea of interviewing respondents who have done 100 or even 200 interviews in the last year. All the evidence is that these respondents are reliable and cost efficient, and no less valid than panel members who only do a few surveys a year (note this is a relative assertion about validity, not an absolute, I am not saying the 200 surveys a year respondent is valid, just that they are not worse than the 5 surveys a year panel member).