Full-service vs. DIY research communities

by Maggie Whitley | published on February 3, 2020

Once you’ve determined that an online community could be a valuable platform for collecting customer insights for your organization, the next step is deciding how to implement it. We’re going to break down the DIY option and the full-service approach.

What is a DIY research community?

An online research community is a vehicle for collecting customer insights in an agile, cost-effective way. Instead of starting from scratch and finding participants for each survey, your own research panel is made up of a captive and motivated pool of consumers who are eager to share their thoughts. We’ve seen the benefits of communities go far beyond the immediate market research data that’s collected — it’s a platform for building your tribe. A DIY research community simply means you’re managing this online community in-house, instead of having a research partner/vendor set it up and maintain it.

What is the cost of a DIY research community? 

The software for the platforms range in cost from $30-100K+ per year. Compare fully hosted options against those that will require setup and support from your internal IT department.

When it comes to the personnel cost, in our experience active community management requires a minimum of 10 hours of weekly maintenance, plus the hours that go into research — which really depends on the amount and type of research you’re doing. This can be measured as one or two employees dedicating 100% of their time to fulfilling the list of tasks outlined below.

Duties associated with running your own online research community: 

  • laptop with a lot of sticky notes on itSelect and learn the technology platform 
  • Design the site 
  • Determine member roles and permissions 
  • Create a screener 
  • Find sample 
  • Recruit participants via email invitation, sample providers, and/or social media 
  • Create and manage incentive plan 
  • Welcome and connect members 
  • Monitor panel health 
  • Create and manage a strategy for maintaining member health (including retirement and refreshment) 
  • Create and execute a strategy for engaging members 
  • Write, program, field, QA, and report on engagement activities (one bullet, loads of work) 
  • Continually respond to member questions and requests (passwords, incentives, etc.) 
  • Continually update site look, feel and functionality to meet new members’ expectations 
  • Advocate for the panel with internal stakeholders 

If you are working with a full-service research community partner, 90% of the items above are handled for you.

Questions to ask if you’re considering managing an online research community in-house 

  • Which individuals at our organization will manage the day-to-day operations of the community, devoting the majority of their work hours to maintaining its health? Will we need to hire someone (or multiple people) to take it on?
  • Who will be responsible for recruiting the initial group of participants and new participants as they are needed? How will we do this recruiting?
  • How will we determine how large our community needs to be?
  • How frequently will we communicate with participants? And how will we measure if this is too much or not enough?
  • How will we measure engagement and health?
  • How do we know what software platform to use? What features are truly important for reaching our goals?
  • What does a fully-managed online community look like?

We can’t speak for all vendors, but Bellomy’s approach to online community management is white-glove service — from the initial setup all the way through to handling day-to-day and week-to-week communications and touchpoints. We utilize our in-house technicians and programmers to keep your platform operating smoothly, and we dedicate multiple team members to building and enriching your community.


cover of the how to choose a panel partner PDFDownload the guide to learn more about evaluating a potential partner's approach to building and managing an online community.


What does it cost to have a partner manage your research community? 

While the cost of having an experienced partner build and maintain a healthy research community for your organization is not less than or equal to the cost of turning on a hosted platform, the cost savings is apparent when you measure the DIY costs beyond the platform itself. For teams that already have full workloads, they’re comparing the cost of a fully-managed platform against that of hiring new team members to bring the community to life. Get in touch with us if you’d like a quote.

Contracting with an experienced and proven online research communities vendor has far less risks than hiring new staff or overloading existing staff who don’t have prior panel management expertise.

For some companies we work with, utilizing an online community for research is a one-year project. If that’s the timeline, it’s nearly impossible for this to be an effective use of internal resources and reach the maximum research benefits — especially if someone is starting it from scratch with no prior experience.

Often we see the one-year pilot turn into a multi-year engagement because the ROI is so apparent and collecting insights is so efficient and immediate. Because we’ve managed dozens of panels and communities over the last decade, we’re able to get a new online community up and running quickly and efficiently.

How does a full-service provider offer a high level of service across many research communities — and do it so affordably? 

There are many efficiencies when managing multiple panels. For each client, we form dedicated groups of four to six people who are monitoring the health of the community, handling incentives, and answering member questions. There are economies of scale as the needs of the various communities are so similar. Another advantage to the team approach is each panel is benefiting from the knowledge of several people with diverse experiences — not just one individual. Each team member has a role on the account, based on their expertise.

Is full-service better? 

If you’re stuck in the weeds of community management, there’s very little room for you to be strategic and drive larger business goals. With a full-service panel partner, you benefit from the insights gained by utilizing the panel, without it taking up all of your time.

"I am thrilled with your work on this major project. It is such a relief to work with a vendor that is proactive and constantly on the ball. It’s enabling me to back away from most of the day-to-day work I was forced to perform when [DIY Provider] had the Panel. This is very important because I can now turn my attention to other things on my plate." – Georgia Power Residential and Business Panels 

cover of the how to choose a panel partner PDFHow to choose an online research community partner 

We’ve put together some tips to help you evaluate research community partners, including lots of questions you should ask in the process. It’s a free resource you can download now.