16 Feb 2017 20:44 IST

How access panels make surveys with very large samples easier

Access panels are becoming more popular by the day. What are they and why are they special?

There was a time when the term research panel would automatically mean consumer consumption tracking panels or retail audit panels. Then, we lived through an era when the term panel also meant a small set of consumers empanelled to enable the periodic testing of new product variants, while avoiding the cost of recruiting fresh respondents each time.

Things have changed again. Today, when someone says “we have a panel”, what they mean is that they have an access panel, and this is becoming one of the common ways of doing research.

An access panel typically involves getting a very large number (really large – tens of thousands at the least) to sign up and agree to answer a fixed number of surveys each year. These surveys are typically conducted online, which is becoming one of the dominant ways of data collection worldwide. In rare cases, the survey is conducted over the telephone.

Online process

The world is gravitating towards such panels, and with good reason. Nonetheless, the traditional arguments against them are still valid, if only in theory.

Let us weigh the pros and cons of using panels, after first getting a little more familiar with them.

Access panels can be “general” in nature, meaning they comprise people of wide-ranging profiles and fitting no particular target definition.

They can also be made up of people who correspond to one or other specific profile definition. For example, we can have a panel only of people belonging to X or Y socio-economic class, or a panel of adventure-sports-lovers, or a panel of students, and so on.

Most access panels are set up by recruiting people online. Therefore, in the most popular international panels, pretty much the entire process is done online.

How it’s done

When a new survey requirement comes up, the panel members are informed about it (the information could be through email or text) and the location where the survey is hosted. Once the required number of responses is obtained, the survey window is closed.

Needless to say, the panel members don’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts; they are rewarded or given incentives every time they participate. The reward could vary from survey to survey, and the form of the reward (money, agift or bonus points) could vary from one company to the next.

A recent, and relatively important, development in this process is the panel exchange. Any research company that owns a panel can list it on a panel exchange, along with some details about the panel, such as the the size, profile, and the past response rate in earlier surveys.

Clients interested in using the panel can log in, select the panel they want to work with, and post the questionnaire. The panel members can also take the survey online.

The pros

Those who support the use of panels point out the following advantages.

First, the cost of research is very low, especially when we compare using access panels to recruiting fresh respondents every time. The difference in cost is huge and almost closes the argument by itself.

Second, since there is no data collection intermediary and the panel members are the ones who decide whether or not to answer the survey, the data is far more likely to be honest than if an intermediary were to be used.

These are significant advantages, especially the cost one.

And the cons

On the other hand, traditional researchers have the following arguments against use of the panels.

~ There is no real sampling process and so the sample may not be representative. To begin with, the panel has not been put together using a probability sampling method. Moreover, for each individual survey, there is no sampling process of selecting people from within the panel.

~ Since there is a financial incentive, the respondents themselves may be less than honest. For instance, if a particular survey is to be done among people who have recently bought a refrigerator, there could be panel members who may falsely claim that they have bought one because they want the incentive.

~ When people keep answering surveys, they could stop being typical consumers since they start figuring out how scales work, among other things.

These are all valid arguments, especially the first one.

While we can debate the pros and cons, the fact remains that access panels are here to stay and the share of researchers opting for them is going to increase as well.

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