Understanding the Pros & Cons of Online Research Panels

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Posted May 09, 2023
Eliza Jacobs

A long time ago, in a fluorescent-lit  office far, far away… an overworked marketer tirelessly works away to create their pen-and-paper questionnaire. Once they finish, they look into the old filing cabinet for a list of reliable addresses. They grab the list, close the cabinet, and—letting out a slight groan—they begin to mail out copies of this paper questionnaire to homes and offices nationwide. 

Chances are, not many of us have that memory. Yes, those days are long gone, and most researchers have recognized the many benefits of online research panels. However, is online market research the end all be all? What are the requirements for analyzing and getting the most out of data collected  over the internet? Here at aytm, we know research. Read on to discover the pros and cons of collecting data from an online panel and the easiest way to pull it off.

What are online research panels?

Your target market is composed of people who have specific characteristics. They may be of a certain age, have specific preferences, or have purchase histories that are relevant to your study. The problem is that these people are geographically located worldwide—reaching them is difficult. Online research panels place all these people within easy reach, providing an affordable way to listen to your target market. 

Simply put, a panel is a group of online survey respondents. Many panel providers profile and pre-screen their panelists before allowing them to qualify for a particular study. If you’re looking for participants with a specific gender, household income, and so on, you can access a large and diverse panel with just those traits. 

Once panelists have been profiled and segmented, online research panels deliver surveys to respondents appropriate for the survey’s categories. Essentially, online research panels provide a buffet of respondents to market researchers. With this technology, you can choose the precise characteristics that make up your niche audience, putting you in the driver’s seat. 

What makes online panels so great?

Generally, online research has made conducting surveys far easier, faster, and more effective than ever before. Researchers have now advanced to an era where the data insights they need are right at their fingertips. That being said, there are a lot of advantages to being able to perform research at nearly the speed of light. Here are just a few of them: 

Pre-profiled respondents make everything faster

Because most research panels profile their panelists, finding the perfect group of panelists for your study is usually pretty easy. Now, you can access hundreds of respondents in hours instead of weeks. 

Real-time questionnaire programming

Another factor that gives you more speed is that most platforms provide real-time questionnaire programming. This means you can design and deliver your survey entirely online, saving you even more time. Furthermore, the data from the answers are automatically collected and stored in a database. This means that researchers no longer have to manually input data, increasing the affordability of market research and reducing input errors. 

A more rich survey experience with sound and video

Online research panels also provide greater customization opportunities to create a more rich survey experience for respondents. This means you can extract higher-quality data that better applies to the real-world situations you are testing. 

Customizable data quotas to keep fieldwork in check

Versatility is also excellent with online research panels. Want to design your survey for mobile users? Done. Looking to set up skip questions and complex logic? Easy. Want to limit the number of respondents within a particular age category? You can do all of this on most online research platforms. 

What’s not to like?

The cons of online research are a little hazier, but they do exist. For one thing, feasibility might be an issue. If your target market is mature householders who do not have internet access, you may find it difficult to reach them with an online survey. Furthermore, because online research makes collecting insights easy, there can be a tendency to not devote enough time to the critical data analysis and cleanup required to finalize a project. Overlooking these crucial actions is not a good idea. The data from an online research panel can only be used if analyzed correctly. 

Make sure you trust your respondents

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not all that uncommon for online panelists to embellish some of their traits, such as their income range or job role. This can negatively impact the quality of the data you get from these surveys. This is why it’s vital to only work with a distinguished research panel that has built-in safeguards to avoid these risks. For instance, aytm has developed the Trust Score. 

What is a TrustScore?

The Trust Score is a way to track and reward panelists who consistently provide accurate information over time. Newer and less honest panelists are given a lower trust score and are less likely to qualify for surveys. A score like this is vital because many online research panels entice respondents through cash, gift cards, and other rewards. Data quality can be negatively impacted if a single respondent is a member of two or more panels, making it more likely that the same respondent will receive the same survey. 

The risks and downsides we have discussed here are something that almost any online research panel has to deal with. However, they can be reduced and managed through consultation with your online research partner. Here at aytm, we don’t believe in vendor-buyer relationships. We believe in partnerships. When you work with us, we come alongside you to help you achieve your marketing goals. If you have questions about the viability of your ideas surrounding your target criteria, you can always just reach out to us, and we will help you with your project. 

The easiest way to do online research

Whenever you start a research project, be sure to set out clear goals and objectives. Once you know where you’re going, you can then start looking for the fastest way to get there. In market research, online research panels are often the best and easiest option for getting rapid and high-quality insights about your target market, but list surveys can also be effective depending on the needs of the project. 

Above, we’ve touched on the pros and cons of online research panels. Many of aytm’s clients have found that the benefits of rapid research far outweigh the risks and downsides of the process. Part of that is just because online panels are awesome. The other part is because of the way aytm’s platform has been designed. We provide the easiest and fastest way to do market research on the market today. Plus, we are so much more than just a tool. Our research experts are standing by to provide specialized services to assist you with your project or even create and execute the entire project for you. 

Research can be intimidating if it’s not part of your day-to-day. Want more information about how online research works? That’s exactly why we created this step-by-step guide to help you tackle your next survey project with confidence.

Get the jumpstart survey guide to learn more

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

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