Research communities and panels: What’s the difference?

published on November, 2023

In today’s digital landscape — with online reviews, customer surveys, social media posts and direct lines to companies through chats, calls and emails — there are more channels than ever for consumers to share feedback. This sort of information can be extremely valuable to businesses with the ability and capacity to collect, analyze and draw insights from it. But this sort of input can be fragmented and challenging to contextualize, and the consumers sharing it are difficult to understand comprehensively. 

Sometimes to meet objectives, a business needs a central, dedicated space to connect with a population of consumers on a regular, long-term basis about topics, issues, and ideas. This is where online research communities and online research panels come into play, offering companies efficient pathways to gather insights and foster connections with their core consumers. 

Communities and panels: Alike in many ways 

Online research communities and online research panels share significant similarities. 

  • They’re both organized in the digital sphere.
  • Each group comprises target audiences as defined by the client. This might be a customer segment, generational group, group with a shared interest or expertise, etc.
  • In each instance, member demographics and profiles allow the company a robust, holistic understanding of participants. 
  • And because establishing a panel or community requires a significant investment of time and other resources, once established, they tend to persist for the long term. In fact, through careful member management, panels and communities can contribute valuable insights and information for years. 

Key differences: Overall purpose & structure 

While they have a lot in common, communities and panels are distinct concepts, and understanding the purpose and structure of each is key to appreciating their differences. 

Research communities function as a forum where members with a common interest interact organically. Community members drive communication; they can initiate group or individual chats, and while conversations frequently touch on the related brand or service, there is great latitude around discussion topics. There’s often a group mindset, with members motivated to learn from each other. You might think of a community as a freeform garden with a primarily qualitative harvest. 

A panel, on the other hand, is a tidy, structured vegetable patch where quantitative data also is in the mix. Control is critical, with a moderator prompting member action. Specific research activities like surveys and polls are often the focus, and group interactions are purposely limited to prevent members from influencing each other. When group conversations do occur, a moderator is present. Panelists sometimes are motivated to weigh in on a specific issue, and they often benefit from incentives and rewards offered by the company. 

Sized to make sense

The purpose of each dictates their size, another key difference. Panels must be large enough to provide an adequate base size for quantitative research and typically have thousands of members. Larger sample sizes allow researchers to understand the motivations, behaviors and preferences of a broader group of customers and also examine results by subgroup. 

Communities, on the other hand, are cultivated for intimate engagement, and members might even begin to recognize each other. They typically number in the hundreds, allowing the focus to remain on relationships, community, and quality of response.

How a business might tap them

So what does all this mean in the practical terms of how a business might leverage a community or panel to inform decisions?   

With their more casual style, communities offer a window into “what’s out there,” with community members raising questions and ideas that researchers might not have previously considered. They can help a business cultivate consumer awareness as it develops and makes decisions. 

On the other hand, a business might turn to a panel for specifics like: 

  • Quick feedback and answers to specific questions
  • Polls and surveys
  • Focus groups
  • Product testing
  • And comparisons between core consumers and other segments (such as rejectors, never tried, and the general population, for example)

First things first: Weigh your needs

In the field of market research, the terms “communities” and “panels” are often used interchangeably because they represent a spectrum with fluid qualities that can be adjusted according to need. 

For example, many research-focused initiatives rely on panels for their moderator control. Yet researchers commonly identify subgroups within the panel for more qualitative activities, like group discussions, to dig into the whys behind quantitative findings. 

If you’re interested in forming a research group to inform your business decisions, you might consider consulting with a market research company for advice on how to construct the community or panel best suited to your needs. Establishing your community or panel is a demanding endeavor, but done well, it’s an endeavor that will serve you well for years to come. 

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