How to build an online market research panel

published on November, 2023

Maybe you’ve considered building a research panel for your business or perhaps just started exploring the possibility. Wherever you are on the spectrum, after decades of related experience, we’ve got practical advice on how to start an online research panel and get your custom research panel up and running.

For the purpose of this article, let’s assume the following:

Now that you’ve got these key steps checked off your list, let’s get started. 

Step 1: Identify your target audience

Establishing member criteria for your panel will ensure you’re talking to the right people and is therefore critical to the effort’s overall success. Along with the key goals you’ve assigned to your panel, as you identify your target audience you might also consider demographic information, segments, personas, and quotas needed for accurate representation of potential participants.

In many cases, you’ll leverage your client lists for potential research panelists. But for more intricate scenarios, collaborating with a research sampling company is invaluable. For instance, when we set up a community of financial advisors, we worked with a sample provider because our target audience was specific — industry professionals rather than customers.

Step 1.5: Nail down your incentive structure

You’ll get more participation and better insights if you offer panel members incentives, so deciding on your incentive structure is an important step and one you’ll want to take sometime between targeting your audience and building out your site. Common incentives include financial rewards (i.e., cash payments, gift cards, virtual currency), contests and drawings, access to exclusive content or insights (i.e., research reports and whitepapers) and product samples and trials. Members of Bellomy’s GenPop panel, named SmartLab, earn redeemable points for completed surveys and gift cards for more involved activities. Regardless of what you ultimately choose, learn from our experience and firm up incentives early because they affect subsequent steps, including the next one.

Step 2-plus: Plan & build the panel site 

This step gets a hybrid combo name because it comprises a couple big tasks. 

How you’ll actually build your site will depend on your resources. If you have access to a CMS and staff members with skills like web development, coding and design, you may be able to build the site for your own panel in house. If not, you’ll want to work with an external vendor. When we provide this service at Bellomy, we create the site on our proprietary software but work closely with clients to ensure the look and feel visually aligns with their brand identity.

Whether you choose internal or vendor to build out the site, at this point it’s imperative you have a clear plan for the functionality and features required for your panel activities and management — things like user registration, login and profile; survey creation; data analysis tools and communication capabilities. And friendly reminder to also build your incentive structure into the site’s architecture (see Step 1.5).

At Bellomy, we ensure an ideal user experience by performing UX testing to determine things like site navigation and placement of various information. Also as part of this step, Bellomy holds engagement planning sessions with panel stakeholders to maximize their use of the panel.

Step 3: Participant recruitment

Typically, research studies show the most effective form of recruitment communication is email from a trusted, recognized sender — usually from the business itself. Emails from the source have higher open rates than those from a third party, with the added bonus of data security by eliminating the need to share customer information externally. Use existing touchpoints (like invoices and website popups) to supplement emails.

Messaging used for recruiting participants should be compelling and include reasons to join (perhaps an opportunity to learn more and share in connection to something they care about) and how they’ll be rewarded (incentives really do matter).

Even though Bellomy’s long history in market research helps us craft messaging that gets results, our process includes reviewing messages with AI and A/B testing. To avoid spamming customers with unwanted messages, we clean the list of anyone who has previously declined panel participation. And throughout the recruitment process we monitor and adjust for demographics like gender, income and education.

Step 4: Launch panel activities

At this point, you’ve done a lot of the hard stuff: thinking, planning, building, recruiting. Now you’re ready for takeoff, aka launching activities to your panel members. In theory, this step is simple, but watch out — blasting emails to hundreds of people (or more) leaves a lot of room for error.

To minimize the potential for blunders, at Bellomy we perform this step in two phases — soft and full launches. During the soft launch, we send to a smaller number of panelists and test everything possible — effectiveness of subject lines and copy, links, point distribution, incentive management and more. When we’re confident in our execution, we initiate the full launch.

Step 5: Maintain and refresh

Finally, the maintenance and review step. Done right, a research panel is built to last. But that doesn’t mean you can set it and forget it. Your panel, like most aspects of business, will perform best with ongoing attention.

At Bellomy this includes:

  • Collecting and reviewing key metrics for panel health

  • Reviewing and adjusting panel communications and incentives for effectiveness

  • Maintaining optimal panel size by recruiting new members and retiring inactive ones every six month to a year

  • Ongoing communication with our clients, including quarterly reviews, annual engagement planning sessions, and regularly sharing reports on research findings, insights and results

Questions? Let us help

If ongoing research with customers is a priority, we encourage you to build your own research panel. Establishing one requires time and effort, but ultimately it can be a cost-effective market research tool, saving considerable time and money with swift insights and results. If you’d like to learn more or need assistance in setting up your research panel, please get in touch.

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