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How Online Research Communities Differ From Branded Panels

Published 21 Jan 2014 3 minute read

Online qual
Research communities

Com-mun-ity (n): an interacting population of various kinds of individuals

Pan-el (n): A custom online panel or Internet access panel is a group of pre-screened respondents who have expressed a willingness to participate in surveys or customer feedback sessions.

While panel and community have similar definitions in the dictionary, the connotations within the marketing research industry are quite different and we often see brands and agencies attempting to create a 'community' but ending up with a 'panel.'

In this post I am going to highlight the differences between the two .

Communities: A two way relationship

Using the label ‘community’ implies a level of organic activity where participants are interacting with one another and with the brand, represented by the Community Manager who literally becomes the voice of the brand. The brand builds a relationship and interacts with members of the community and, over time, will grow a healthy community. Outside the community itself, but within the scope of the research, internal insight teams may be communicating with one another and socializing the findings such that insightful decisions can be made. They will also be feeding questions and new research objectives back into the community, via the Community Manager. This approach ensures all stakeholders within the organization have a vested interest in the success of the the insight community. Communities can require a substantial investment of time, so to capitalize on this everyone should be involved with and have bought into the community strategy from the outset.

Branded panels: They're there when you need them

Branded PANELS are NOT communities. They are a group of people that are on-tap and available to answer questions or to engage in activities once in a while.

For our purposes it's important to understand that branded panel interactions tend to be mainly surveys (panel again being the resource, but the methodology this time is a survey), so there is very little interaction between participants and little or no back and forth between the brand/community manager and the respondents.

The key benefit of having the branded panel is the availability of the group and while this may not give you the depth you'd receive through an Insight Community, the resources you'll need to allocate will be significantly less.

Maintaining Engagement: Communities vs. Panels

There are some fundamental differences in the rules of engagement between an Insight Community and a branded panel.

To keep levels of engagement within your Insight Community high, you'll combine research-oriented activities with other activities that we refer to sometimes as ‘fillers’. The interest in and content generated by these ‘fillers’ is very useful for keeping members engaged during times when there aren’t any research activities taking place as well fostering that organic activity amongst members that we mentioned above.

These kinds of activities generally relate to to category or to a topic that community members might also find interesting. For example, you might ask members of a digital photography community how they feel about scrapbooking or how people who are active internet shoppers how they feel about security breaches. They should be topical in nature, but with less structure than a research driven activity. Another benefit of these filler activities often help you uncover what questions you need to ask next and guide your overall research plan. It allows the Community Manager (and brand) to be the fly on the wall and witness how people converse about your brand and about parallel topics - in a very natural language.

With branded panels engagement and relationships tend to be more quantitative in nature (Insight Communities will mix both qualitative and quant) and have dark periods between the research. Because of these dark periods, respondents can be difficult to retain over long periods without significant cash incentives, and the quality and quantity of response can drop off over time. Ultimately, there won’t be a lot of continuity between interactions and you end up spending more money and effort refreshing the participants than you would with a community.

It's all about the money. Or, is it?

Communities, like panels, often require cash incentives but the best communities are often managed with less cash incentives due to their collaborative nature. Through this web of interaction community members are able to see how their input is effecting the brand and it fosters a passion to help. In this sense, the rewards are driven by social norms and not a rewards system. They love the knowledge and process, not the coupon they receive as a bonus. Where relationships are built and deepen, the quality and sustainability of the interactions grows. With flourishing relationships comes more openness and honesty. This leads to the uncovering of real truths.

As we’ve already pointed out, branded panelists tend receive cash or prize-based rewards since the method of engagement isn’t designed to build relationships in an open two-way fashion. Panelists rarely find out what has been done or actioned with the information they have shared and this keeps the interaction activity based.

There is room for both, but understanding the difference is crucial

Don't get me wrong. Branded panels do have their place and are incredibly valuable tools within a research program. But, they are fundamentally different from Insight Communities and we must understand those differences if we are to be successful with either. At then end of the say, the best way to think about it is that Insight Communities are a methodology and a Panel is a resource from which we find respondents.

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