I have been saying this for a while (for example, in chapter 13 of The Handbook of Online and Social Media Research), but I wanted to write a definitive blog post on this item before I become too closely associated with any providers in this area.
Like all useful terms, the phrase Community Panel can be used in a number of subtly different ways, but to me the term relates to something that is positioned between an MROC (online research community) and a private/in-house panel. The typical community panel is large enough to support quantitative research (typically ranging from 5,000 to 50,000), which makes it larger than most MROCs, which are essentially qualitative devices, but it has a level of sophistication and interaction that separates it from traditional panels.
Community Panels differ from traditional in-house panels in terms of their engagement. Traditional panels were largely used for conventional quant surveys, perhaps supplemented with occasional newsletters. By contrast, community panels employ the latest techniques in surveys, communities, online discussions, interactivity, and longitudinal analysis to create a cost effective ‘Voice of the Customer’ resource.
In many ways the community panel is the logical extension of the wider market research move to online access panels. When a large part of the research industry made the move to using online access panels it moved away from concepts such as random access sampling and towards the day-to-day use of convenience sampling (with respondents doing 1 or 2 surveys a week), away from models of validity that depended on sampling and the measurement of sampling error and towards methods such as benchmarking and modelling. The move to online access panels provided the benefits of cost and speed.
For brands that are doing a reasonable amount of research the community panels offers several benefits, even compared with online access panels, these benefits include:
- Cost: a wide range of companies are reporting that they can conduct three times as much research with the same budget using community panels (this is also true with MROCs). In addition clients with a large research spend are finding they can make absolute savings by using a community panel.
- Speed: the panel is already accessible to the client, the formats are agreed, the process of designing studies and creating research instruments is quicker because they are not being designed from scratch.
- Longitudinal analysis: The databases that underpin community panels (from Telligent, to Global Park, to Vision Critical, to Vovici) allow for complex longitudinal analysis, looking at issues such as changes in views, behaviour, and preferences over time.
- Consistency: all research conducted via the panel can utilise the same scales and processes, increasing clients’ ability to compare results from one study to another, conventional research uses a variety of panel providers and software platforms, introducing extraneous variation.
Of course, very few things come without downsides and the use of community panels introduces two key limitations:
- The research is branded. In most cases community panels are branded and the members of the community panels know they are dealing with the brand (or an intermediary on behalf of the brand).
- The research is conducted with customers. There are community panels which include non-customers, but in most cases the active and effective part of a community panel is composed of customers.
My view is that focusing research on customers is not a bad thing. There will always be some research that needs to be conducted with non-customers or in a non-branded way, but I believe these are a minority for most organisations. Customer satisfaction needs to concentrate on customers, but beyond that: ad and image tracking, ad testing, concept screening, ideation, and strategy can all be focused on customers. My feeling is that historically too many brands have focused too much on non-users. After all, in most cases making the product better for customers is likely to make it better for non-users.
I foresee a market where most brands have community panels and where perhaps 80% of their research is conducted via their panel – with non-panel research reserved for those cases where it is actually needed. I think that clients will treat their community panel as a core resource, expecting their suppliers to have a default option of the fieldwork (and the survey scripting) to be conducted via a client’s panel.
For organisations with a large research spend I expect there to be large cost savings, for organisations with smaller budgets they will find their money produces much more research when they switch to a community panel.