Understanding the Pros & Cons of Online Research Panels

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Posted Nov 28, 2018

Online research panels are widely recognized as a quick and lucrative way to conduct market research. In a society where everyone is easily connected through the internet, it makes sense that research has long progressed from the days of pen-and-paper questionnaires to online survey methods that access hundreds of people instantly. So how do you know if utilizing an online research panel is the appropriate path for your study? To address this question, it is important to explore the possible pros and cons associated with collecting data from an online panel.

Defining Online Research Panels

Research panels offer a convenient and affordable way to access the right people that can provide meaningful feedback. Most panel providers profile and pre-screen their panelists before allowing an individual to qualify for a particular study. For example, research panels will ask their respondents to willingly provide their personal information so that they can then be categorized for psychographic traits or demographics like gender, household income, ethnicity, employment status, and so on. Once panelists are properly profiled and segmented, online research panels will administer surveys to respondents that are developed for that category. Before we dive into the pros and cons of online sampling, you can learn more about research panels in our Introductory Guide to Panels, Sampling & Survey Design.

Pros of Online Research Panels

There are many advantages to performing online research with quality research panels:

Online research panels typically profile their panelists making it possible to identify each individual as qualified for a specific study. The process of pre-profiling provides a quick and easy way for you to collect the best possible data from the appropriate respondents. Gone are the days where fieldwork could take months to wrap up! Access to hundreds of respondents is almost instant, reducing fielding time to days, even hours.

Depending on the research platform, your questionnaire can be programmed online and revised real-time, without the nuance of writing anything down or wasting paper. Once a questionnaire has been fielded, the answers are automatically stored in a database. Due to this, researchers no longer have to manually input data, which results in fewer data errors.

Questionnaires can be optimized to fit almost any screen, whether the respondent is using a desktop, tablet, or mobile. It can be programmed to skip questions based on previous answers and set other complex logic. There are also options to embed media, audio, or video within a survey. This makes for a richer survey experience for the respondents.

In most cases, it is also possible to customize how the data comes in by setting quotas (e.g. on gender or age). When a quota is full, the research platform being used can block respondents who are trying to enter the survey for that particular quota. This is a great way to keep the fieldwork in check.

Overall, conducting surveys to online research panelists has become a user-friendly experience for both the panelists and researchers. With survey participants being able to decide which surveys they want to take (skipping those that are irrelevant to them) or having the ability to answer a survey on their way to school or their 5-minute break at work, researchers have advanced to an era where the data revelations they seek is at their fingertips.

Cons of Online Research Panels

The main disadvantage of collecting data from an online research panel is that the data can only be used if analyzed the correct way:In some cases, feasibility can present itself as an issue. Those who are eligible to participate in online surveys must have access to the internet. That said, if you want to reach countries or rural areas with low internet accessibility, you are better off conducting traditional face-to-face interviews. But if your research is focused on developed markets or major cities, the online methodology is perfect.

Unsurprisingly, some online research panelists may decide to embellish their income range or job role. This can lead to respondents answering surveys that are not intended for them, thus compromising your data quality. Superior research panels will ensure there are safeguards in place to avoid such risks, much like the Trust Score that AYTM has developed.   Because online research panels entice respondents to participate through cash rewards, gift cards, etc., it is possible that participants will attempt to partake in as many surveys as possible to yield more incentives. Specifically, this is a risk for those who have allocated samples to multiple panel companies. Data quality may be compromised when a respondent is a member of two or more panels. This is because that respondent is likely to receive the same survey.

Though the mentioned risks can occur with almost any online research panel, they can be abridged by consulting with your online research partner. A suitable partner should have insights about the viability of the target criteria and optimal survey design for your project.

The Takeaways

Using online panels for research can be very beneficial to an organization, but it is essential that there is a complete understanding regarding the goals of the research and the value that can be extracted from the data collected. In addition to evaluating the benefits of utilizing online research panels, we’ve also touched on some of the associated risks. In a scenario where pros and cons are presented, it is important to determine which outweigh the other. If you determine that the pros far outweigh the cons, it is advisable to consult with your online panel provider to help to mitigate any foreseeable risks.

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