In Focus: Research Panels vs. Communities
Although the terms research “panels” and “communities” are often used interchangeably, especially by those new to the market research field, these two tools do differ in important ways and one is often more appropriate than the other depending on specific research objectives.
Research panels, which are usually maintained by market research companies, typically consist of a large number of respondents that have signed up to participate in surveys or other similar research methodologies. The panels serve as a database of respondents that are available to share their feedback usually in exchange for incentives such as a point system that can eventually be redeemed for cash.
Panels are typically used on a “need basis” with surveys being sent out to the available pool of respondents that then share their feedback. By having an available pool of respondents that have already been recruited to provide their opinions and insights, panels provide the advantages of time as the turnaround times for panels are usually quite good. As panels are used on a “need basis”, depending on the objectives of the research the pool of respondents can either be utilized by a brand on a one-time basis or at regular intervals such as once per month.
While panels can be used for both quantitative and qualitative research, due to their nature (especially the fact that they are used to get quick feedback from a large number of respondents) they tend to be used more often for quantitative research. The exception to this is when custom panels are utilized; custom panels consist of respondents that have been recruited to share their feedback as they meet a certain criteria. For example a custom panel of ultra-high net worth individuals might be utilized more for qualitative research than quantitative.
Research communities, on the other hand, consist of an actively engaged group of people that regularly share their opinions and feedback in relation to specific topics. A community, which tends to gather qualitative feedback, provides its members with a place to talk where they can collaborate and discuss ideas. By relying on peer to peer interaction, communities encourage interaction and utilize this interaction as a source of feedback on key topics of interest. For example, a luxury retailer might maintain a community of its existing and potential customers, whereby the chatter within the community provides the luxury retailer with key insights into its customers’ preferences and needs. A community provides the chance to gather key insights without directly prompting for them.
While communities and panels differ, it is possible to create a combined tool that provides added benefits by allowing the tools to work together. For example, research communities can be used to gather feedback on specific topics by running a survey within the community on an ad hoc basis. Alternatively, a community can be created within a panel to gather non-directed qualitative feedback. However, when combining the two tools one must consider the profile of the respondents that form either the community or the panel and the specific research objectives. If a research community consists only of existing customers, whereas a brand wishes to run a survey on all of its target audience running the survey within the community might not be ideal.