The meteoric rise of routers, aggregators, and programmatic sampling over the last decade has pushed the boundaries of innovation for delivering online sample. But the same can’t be said for market research panels. Innovation has stalled, boasting minor improvements such as social sign-in, additions of qualitative components to panel infrastructure, and creative incentive solutions. The architecture, however, remains largely in-tact, a near replica of panels past since their advent in the early 2000s. So, the big question for panel is, what’s clogging the innovation pipeline?

What is a market research panel?

But before we even get into what’s depressing panel innovation and where I see the future of panel going, let’s define what a panel is. Quora came through with perhaps the most simple, clean definition of a market research panel:
Consumer panels are comprised of pre-recruited groups of people who have agreed to participate in online research. Members are usually given incentives to reward them for their time and participation.

What is depressing panel innovation?

Understanding how a panel works eludes to why there has been hardly any innovations on the panel front in the last two decades – a failure to innovate survey design. To explain what I mean, one only has to study the evolution of social media since panels emerged in the early 2000s.

Consider Myspace (yes, it’s still around). Launched in 2003, the landing page, sign in, friends, no feed, and notifications via email make Myspace a pretty good analog for panels if you think about it. But since then, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat has emerged and changed the way we communicate. I’m leaving out dozens of minor social media players that also sprung up during that time, but my point is this. Social media networks innovated the delivery mechanism – PC to mobile.

Panel, on the other hand, is trailing in their adoption of mobile centric technology, resulting in vehicles that ask respondents to engage with an archaic survey design resulting in vanishing response and completion rates year after year.

Yes, there are mobile panels and mobile survey companies. But they have failed to convince clients to fully adopt mobile because we have yet to figure out how to get the same data from mobile surveys that a traditional quantitative survey delivers. Clients want results.

The future of panel is specialization.

So for now, we have to accept that survey design is not going to change drastically until we exhaust our current panelist pool or figure out how to get better results from mobile surveys. Which means, we still have a dilemma. How do we innovate panels without innovating survey design?

The answer lies in specialization. Let’s, again, turn to content to illustrate this point. We’ve seen some of the greatest T.V. come out in the last decade due to very specific storytelling. Shows like “Master of None”, “Atlanta”, and “Fresh Off The Boat” have been extremely successful to a wide audience despite being very specific in the stories they tell.

Similarly, I believe panels can slow the rapidly increasing attrition rates by providing tailored online environments around cultural similarities such as ethnicity, generations, geography, and interests.

A good example of this in our industry are MROCs (market research online communities). Companies like Vision Critical have thrived in the past decade, making it to the AMA Gold Report relatively shortly after its founding. MROCs provide that specific cultural experience, typically around brands or verticals, but they have done so by going against the grain of what is happening in the panel environment.

MROCs present a great model for the panel industry to follow if it’s serious about crafting catered experiences that elicit panel responses and boost completion rates. The alternative is to continue our blanket approach to panel building, releasing big panels that serve entire nations and sometimes continents with no sub specializations.

Use specialization to narrow your focus.

Business trends, in general, are show signs of leaning more into specialization. Social media, content, retail, and other fields have all experienced growth by narrowing their focus to specific groups of people. If the panel business takes its cues from these trends towards specialization, I think we can save our respondents from eventual extinction and deliver better results to our clients.