A common hurdle when conducting an online survey is finding the right respondents and collecting enough responses so that you have sound data to make decisions on.
If you don’t have access to your target audience, panel companies are a quick and cost-effective method for driving targeted respondents to your online survey. However, as with any type of research methodology, there are always some pros and cons.
Finding Respondents Through Research Panels
Panel companies recruit survey respondents who have agreed to take part in surveys. These companies match online respondents with researchers’ target audience.
A panel consists of a group of individuals who have expressed interest in participating in surveys and meets the necessary demographic criteria.
When a respondent agrees to be a part of a panel, they share an extensive amount of information about themselves and their households, including individual demographics as well as firmographics, which the panel company uses for selection.
Panel companies charge based on the number of completed responses and the level of difficulty in meeting the demographic criteria for the sample selection.
Note: Panel companies should not be confused with mailing list companies that provide consumer or marketing mailing lists used for direct mail and telemarketing purposes.
The Benefits of Using Panel Respondents
- Convenience – It is easy and convenient to find respondents in a demographic selection.
- Quick responses – Once respondents are selected you can gain fast insight into your study.
- High response rate – Since panelist are incentivized to take a survey, this data collection method has a high response rate.
- Longitudinal advantages – With a large pool of respondents you can track changes in behavior over time. If you are looking to use the same respondents over a period of time, be sure to let the panel company know in advance so that they can alert the respondent that this will be an ongoing study and so that they can anonymously identify those who participated in it.
Panel companies tend to specialize in specific geographic areas or industries so shop around for one in your niche. They have pools of consumers, small business owners, executives, IT professionals, healthcare providers and many other select targets.
The Drawbacks of Using Panel Respondents
The three main drawbacks of using a survey panel are:
- Nonprobablity Sampling – Because the respondents are chosen in a nonrandom manner, some members of the population have no chance of being included. This presents the problem of calculating how well the sample represents the population as a whole.
- Data Quality – Since respondents are incentivized to complete a survey, their motives are not altruistic. Because they may not be vested in your cause or goal, these responses may be of a lesser data quality.
- Duplicate Responses – Sometimes a panel company will not have a large enough pool to draw from for a particular demographic in which case they will partner with another panel company to fill the order. If a respondent is signed up with both panels duplicate responses can occur.
Most panel companies are vested in providing high quality responses since this is vital for them to keep repeat business. There will however, be some questionable responses. The key is to choose a reputable company and to take a close look at the data you get back to weed out the outliers and duplicate responses.
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Selecting A Research Panel That Matches Your Target Audience
When shopping around, you will need to provide the panel company with your demographic criteria and the number of responses you need. Look for a panel company that specializes in the niche you are looking for so that you get the best possible results.
A few survey providers have access to panel companies. They know which panel companies specialize in different industries and can coordinate panel requests, speeding up setup and response time.
So, How Many Survey Responses Do I Need?
You probably need less than you think. When calculating sample size, there are several factors to consider. These include:
- Population size – the entire set of people who you want to understand.
- Level of accuracy – this is your margin of error. A 5% margin of error is most commonly used.
- Confidence level – how sure you are that your sample accurately reflects your population. A 95% confidence level is most commonly used.
This gets a little complex, so I like to refer to a Sample Size Calculator.
Generally speaking, larger sample sizes are more precise – meaning that the results are reproducible and repeatable. But as you can see from the chart above, there is a point of diminishing return in statistical accuracy.
According to Answers Reach, Inc:
“At some point, the increase in statistical accuracy may not be worth the additional cost. A sample size of 400 gives a statistical accuracy of ±5% and is often thought of as the most “cost effective” sample size.”
So, if you do not know your population size but know that it is quite large, use 400 as the number of responses to collect.
Survey Tips When Using Research Panels
Some extra steps are necessary when it comes to setting up your survey with a panel company to make sure you have the right respondents and to ensure you aren’t paying for more responses than you need.
- Disqualifying Logic
Disqualifying questions at the beginning of your survey will weed out any respondents that do not meet your main criteria.
For instance, if you are looking for males between the ages of 18 and 24 who chew tobacco, you would want to set up 3 questions that ask for the the respondents’ gender, age and if they chew.
If they select female for the first question, or are 25 years old, or if they don’t chew, then they will be redirected to a Thank You page that lets them know that they do not meet your requirements for your study.
Some panel companies charge for disqualified responses so be sure you ask when you place your order.
Quotas are response limits. You will definitely want to set a quota when using a panel company to ensure that you don’t end up paying for more responses than you intended.
- Link Tracking
You will need to add a URL variable at the end of your survey link. This is used as an ID by the panel company to track respondents.
- URL Redirect
The panel company will provide 3 URLs that you’ll use to redirect respondents back to the panel company site.
- One for completed surveys
- One for disqualified respondents
- One for over quota
Not all survey tools have disqualifying logic or quotas, so make sure that your plan includes these advanced feature.
Surveying Target Audience Improves Data Quality
Despite having specified your target audience requirements, your sample source may not meet all of your criteria, which can compromise the quality of your data.
If you have responses that do not reflect the representative sample, selection bias occurs and your data will be skewed.
Even if you used disqualifying logic in your survey, you are still likely to get some outliers. This is especially true if you used a panel to collect your data since these respondents are not emotionally connected to your cause or goal. Because their goal is to get paid, they sometimes rush through a survey without giving the question much thought.
Data cleaning is time consuming process, but well worth the effort to ensure that invalid and biased responses are removed. Look for speeders and patterns such as straight-lining, Christmas-tree behavior, and other data inconsistencies as these are often indicators of poor data quality.
Be careful not to introduce your own biases when analyzing the data. An advanced survey tool that has an automated data cleaning feature will help eliminate personal bias when interpreting the data.
If you do find that your responses are of poor quality, or that the respondents don’t match your criteria, let your panel company know. Hopefully they will find you additional respondents.
Surveying Your Target Audience Through a Research Panel
For many surveyors, panels are a convenient and cost-effective way to collect survey responses. You will need to decide if the conveniences out way the drawbacks. Most find that with a little extra effort in survey setup and data cleaning, they have quality data to make sound decisions.
Survey Response Rates