Panels, sampling, and survey design: An introductory guide

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Posted May 23, 2023
William Cathey

Navigating through unfamiliar territories can be challenging, especially when you have no idea where to turn. Similarly, making business decisions without the opinions of your customers can lead to disastrous results. So, how do you stay close to your customers and listen to them? One of the most straightforward and effective ways to achieve this is through surveys using consumer panels. In this post, we’ll walk you through how panels work, the best way to design your surveys, and the easiest way to deploy them: aytm.

What are consumer panels?

Simply put, a panel is a group that’s ready and willing to answer your questions in a survey format. Panel companies collect and manage these groups using online platforms that allow users to log in, answer questions, and get paid for their time. 

When a panelist joins a panel, their demographic data is collected and recorded. This allows you to send your survey to panelists that fit your target market criteria. The average cost of using panels will vary depending on the quantity of responses, the specificity of your audience, and the length of your survey.

To give you an example:  At aytm, we track ten major demographic traits, but we also track and maintain over 2,000 psychographic data points on each respondent. This provides users of our sample engine with unparalleled precision regarding audience targeting. 

Other than audience specificity and length of survey, one of the other significant factors impacting the cost and quality of a panel is its size. If the overall panel is too small, there may not be enough demographic diversity to get reliable data. But the good news is that when you create a panel survey with aytm, you unlock access to over 100 million trusted respondents worldwide. 

So, why should you use consumer panels?

There are plenty of benefits to using consumer panels. Here are several:

  • You get guaranteed responses to your survey
  • You’re granted access to specific populations
  • Turn-around times are generally fast
  • More accurate and actionable insights 

But let’s say you use templates and free software to build your survey and are ready to send it out. Now what? Even if you send it out to your colleagues or to groups you may know, there’s no guarantee that your data will be reliable or that the insights gathered will be projectable onto the general population. Plus, you have no guarantee that anyone will respond to the survey you sent them. Consumer panels give you access to a large and engaged database of people from various backgrounds motivated to answer your questions.

Another benefit of online panels is that when you solicit survey responses from your customers, employees, friends, or co-workers, they are going to know who you are and have a tendency to give you biased responses.  With online consumer panels, you remain anonymous, as can your company and/or your products.  The respondents have no need to know the sponsor of the research and the result is that you obtain much more actionable insights.

Is your target market a small niche? 

While it’s tough to find enough people to extract good insights, a consumer panel can help you access highly specific populations—enabling you to connect with highly relevant groups. 

In the past, market research projects could take weeks or months to complete. These days, it can take as little as days or even hours. Companies are struggling to find the right balance between complex insights that takes weeks or months to execute and their need to make nimble business decisions.   So in a world that is moving at the speed of light, the horse-and-buggy strategy is simply not going to cut it. In this way, consumer panels enable you to get the data you need faster than with any other survey distribution method. 

What’s more, the insights you can get from consumer panel research are highly specific and actionable. Want to make a change in the branding of a specific product? With consumer panel surveys, you’re now able to effectively run ideas by your customers before implementing a new design. 

How to determine your consumer panel sample size

You likely already have a good idea of the attributes of your target market. Once you decide on which panel to use, you will want to determine your sample size. In other words, how many customers do you need to talk to if you wish to extract actionable insights from your survey? There are a lot of factors that impact sample size. For starters, your budget may give you a limiting cap on the max size. Alternatively,  you could use a margin of error calculator to find your ideal sample size. To use this calculator, you will need to determine three variables:

  • Population size
  • Margin of error
  • Confidence level

The population size is usually an estimated number that indicates the overall size of your target market. This number could range from thousands to millions for many businesses. The margin of error is the percentage of error you are willing to tolerate for the purposes of your research. Finally, the confidence level reflects your confidence (expressed as a percentage) in how closely your sample reflects the population. 

To determine your consumer panel sample size, you take the number of survey responses required, divide by your expected confidence level, and multiply by 100. For example, say your target market consists of 250M people. If your confidence level is high (around 95%), you would put in your estimated sample size. If you start at 1,000, you will get a margin of error of 3.10%. You could then increase or decrease your sample size until you get an acceptable margin of error. It’s also worth mentioning here that the industry standard sample size here is around 400 respondents. 

Generally, the decisions around sample size involves finding the right balance between three components:  ideal sample size, potential sample size, and affordable sample size.  This is finding a balance between what is ideal, what is deliverable by your provider, and what you can afford.

Survey design when you’re working with panels

When working with panels, there are a few things to remember when it comes to survey design. One of the first guidelines to remember is to set up proper screening at the beginning of your survey to ensure that only the correct people are taking the survey. This will help ensure that only relevant respondents take your survey. One way to think about designing your screening questions is to think about a few questions that you could ask any random person on the street that would ensure that only your ideal respondent is able to participate in the survey.  Also, as a general rule, it is better to avoid yes/no questions as screeners.  And, don’t stack multiple requirements in one question.   For a bad example:

S1:  Are you a lumber jack living in Vermont  who runs three miles a week and has spent $100 or more on running shoes within the last 90 days?  (Single Select Yes/No)

Secondly, it’s a good idea to contact your panel company if you need demographic data on your respondents. There’s always a chance that you’re hoping to get data points that your panel doesn’t track or collect. If that’s the case, you can ask about that missing information in your survey. 

Finally, design your survey to be compatible with mobile devices. Each year, the number of panelists taking surveys exclusively on mobile devices increases. We recommend testing your survey to see if it looks good on a mobile device before launching. For more information, you can check out our guide on research design.

Insights, on-demand

A high-quality panel can be a dream come true for a marketer under pressure. The ability to quickly jump in, ask a few questions, and get responses in just a few hours is a truly a game changer. At aytm, we work to make that experience as valuable for you as possible—with a flexible, DIY platform, that comes with tons of opportunities for expert support, and all the learning resources you’d need to become a whiz on our platform. In summary, online panels are the way to take your market research to the next level, and we’d like to think that aytm is the best way to achieve this. So if you’re ready to get insights on-demand, contact us today!

Get the jumpstart survey guide for market research

Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2018 but updated in 2023 for relevancy.

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