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Panel Management: How to manage your market research survey panel

14 min read
Knowing how to build and maintain a research panel is one of the core foundations of market research. We'll cover panel management, stakeholders, and key best practices for any project.

What is panel management?

Panel management is how organisations build and maintain research panels – targetable groups of consumers or other audiences who have volunteered to participate in research. Research panels are used for a wide variety of projects, including marketing research, competitor analysis, product tests and advertising testing.

Panel management involves participant recruitment, regular maintenance of the participants’ profiles – so you can bring the right people into the right research project – deploying tactics to keep individuals engaged in the research, good communication and solid compliance.

Nowadays, panel management software allows organizations to do all that on a single, intuitive platform.

Free eBook: A basic guide to panel design

person filling out a survey on his desktop

Building your research panel: In-house or third-party?

When an organisation wants to do panel research, they can typically either tap into a panel they’ve built in-house – or start building one – or they can outsource it to the market research industry via a third-party panel provider.

The saying ‘’it’s better to own than rent” is very applicable to this particular conundrum – with your own research panel you gain complete control over your research, which comes with many benefits. But, like with most things, there are pros and cons to both options that should definitely be considered.

Why build your research panel in-house

In-house panel management enables you to steer the size of your panel and craft detailed participant profiles. This control empowers your organization to zero in on specific customer segments, ensuring the data you collect is relevant and impactful.

By building your own panel, you have the freedom to gather the exact targeting information that suits your unique research goals. This approach unlocks deeper insights because you’re engaging directly with a group that’s been curated to align with your research questions.

In-house panel management often also turns out to be cheaper. You’ll likely still provide participant incentives, but without the additional fees charged by third-party providers. And if panelists feel a strong connection to your brand, they might be less swayed by monetary incentives and more by intrinsic rewards like brand loyalty or exclusive offers.

While setting up and maintaining an in-house panel can be a serious investment in terms of time and resources, it pays dividends by way of more targeted feedback and cost savings over time. And it’s made even more effective by adopting panel management software – making it easier than ever to recruit, target, reward and get feedback from every customer segment.

Why outsource your panel management

Outsourcing your panel management to third-party panel providers or market research companies can be both a practical and strategic move.

If your company lacks the resources and/or expertise for panel management, a specialized provider can take the reins efficiently and free up your team. It’s a simple fact that, because of the resource and skill required, building and maintaining a panel in-house simply isn’t feasible for many organizations.

Also, if you want your research to reach a new audience – one that perhaps isn’t part of your usual customer base – it often doesn’t make sense to invest in building and nurturing a dedicated panel for a one-off study. Instead, a third-party can broaden your reach and provide quick access to a diverse and ready-made audience.

different groups of diverse people

10 panel management best practices

So, you’re bringing your panel management in-house. Here are a few best practice tips to help you succeed.

1. Be specific when determining your panel size

The first thing to think about is how many people you need to recruit to your panel. To know that number, you need to work out your ideal sample size, your typical response rate and how many studies you intend to carry out.

We know that when panelists receive invitations twice a month, response rates typically range from 10% to 30%. The main things that influence response rates are topic saliency, survey length and incentives/rewards.

Let’s say you need 500 responses per survey, have a response rate of 30% and you’re planning to run two studies a month. Your panel size would then be:

500 (sample size per survey) / 30% (response rate) / 2 (studies per month) =1,667 participants

That’s a simple example – you may also need to factor in geographic quotas to ensure you have a good sample from different regions, and demographic profiles to get a solid split of age and gender.

Make sure you have all the requirements in hand before you start recruiting and aim to go 10-20% above your minimum number to cover you in case people opt out of your panel or you don’t hit your target response rate.

2. Don’t be afraid to recruit your panel from different sources

You can draw research participants from a whole range of channels you’re already using, including your email database, and proactively recruiting via your website, social media and point of sale.

You may want to look externally too, especially if you’re planning to increase your panel size, or gather responses from prospects or customers of competitors. This approach is particularly useful if you’re running a comparative study on your product or doing competitor research. In this case, you may want to look at advertising, lead generation networks (i.e., buying contact lists) and affiliate networks to draw in a wider range of participants.

3. Think of panel members as people first and foremost

It’s important to remember that your participants are real people, not rows in a spreadsheet.

Yes, you might have a large panel size and they may be doing this for an incentive (if you decide to offer one), but any one of them could provide you with game-changing insight into your company and product decisions.

Much of good panel management is about making people feel comfortable, important and listened to. Having that mindset will set you on your way to gain the best results from their input.

4. Be authentic in your communication

Panel management is as much about people management as it is simply research and data analysis. And good people management doesn’t happen without good communication.

Before you send an email ask yourself, ‘would I respond to this?’ Be interested in them and their opinion and make sure it doesn’t sound automated.

5. Create a separate brand for your panel

It’s a great idea to create a separate brand for your panel that stands out from what your company is doing and saying elsewhere. After all, you want them to actually open the survey emails!

The brand should have its own name and look, but still be congruent with the company brand. For example, if your company was called ABC, you might brand your panel as ABC Advisors. A small change like this will help your participants feel like they’re part of something special.

6. Appoint an internal point person(s) for the panel

As with most large scale project management, it’s important you have a key person in charge of your panel management to ensure things run smoothly. Ideally, someone internally will manage the panel and the real work on the frontend (depending on the size of the project and capacity required, this may be multiple people).

This role will be required to gather the initial list of emails and send the profiling survey. Once the panel is assembled, the consistent work is making sure the surveys are set up correctly, and the logic and question workflow works well. The workload is making sure you’re doing smart surveys, not managing the people.

This person will also serve as the name and face of the panel. This person’s headshot and email should be in all communication, even if it’s a general email like By giving a name and face to the panel, it makes it more authentic and shows that it’s being taken seriously on the company’s side.

7. Keep your surveys short

Your panel will be doing surveys for you on a consistent basis and will know if you’re asking redundant questions, so keep things tight.

Also, don’t ask for information that you already know. For example, you will know names and email addresses, so don’t ask them to fill that in again.

8. Communicate consistently

It’s important to set a regular cadence and stick to it. If you say you’re going to send surveys twice a month and end up doing it six times, you’re asking too much from them. On the other hand, if you say twice a month and send one every other month, they won’t take the responsibility seriously. Send a survey at least once a month, but best practice is twice.

That said, your cadence depends on your business and the frequency your panel members do business with you. It also depends on what you’re measuring and how big your panel is. Remember, you’re only one touchpoint of the brand and they may be receiving emails from other departments of the brand multiple times a week.

9. Address customer service complaints quickly

Part of panel management is dealing with complaints or issues raised by respondents.

If a panel member gives you negative feedback on a survey or wants an issue addressed, make sure someone follows up with them ASAP – panel members need to feel like their voices are heard. You can tag these surveys and have a specific person in the customer service department who takes care of them.

10. Reward your panelists

Incentives are a key part of panel management and shouldn’t be overlooked; they not only help with attracting panelists, but also keep response rates up.

The key feature of a good incentive is relevance; monetary incentives typically perform better than gifts. You could opt to aggregate incentives through a points system, where panelists build up points based on the number of studies they participate in.

Be careful to avoid incentives that may be more attractive to some panelists compared with others. For example, coupons or early access to new products are going to be more appealing to current customers than non-customers and could bias your results.

Rewarding panelists isn’t just about money or gifts though – panelists also want to know their time and effort was well spent. Something as simple as keeping them up-to-date with the results of your research studies and how you used their responses will make participants feel much more invested in their role.

Sector spotlight: Using panel management to improve healthcare patient and business outcomes

Panel management is common in the healthcare sector. It can not only help to improve patient care and clinical outcomes, but also improve business processes and efficiency.

Using a patient panel, for example, health workers can get a better understanding of how patients are managed, identify unmet patient needs, spot where better management could improve services – like basic preventive care within hospitals – or where proactive care could be more beneficial.

medical provider wheeling a patient down a hallway

Understanding gaps in health services is particularly important in population-based care when looking at the clinical outcomes of a particular group – for example, improving health outcomes for older populations or those with a particular type of illness like cardiovascular disease.

Here panel management can not only identify care gaps, but also help clinical staff make better use of staff time to improve health outcomes. For example, identifying processes to better deal with disease management in a certain population, helping identify how to manage chronic conditions more effectively, or identifying where patient self-management could improve results.

As well as helping to improve patient care, this type of research can uncover inefficiencies in care systems that could be costing clinicians time and money that could be better allocated elsewhere.

The same principles for using panel management for patient care apply when it comes to using panel management in business. It’s about understanding the thoughts, characteristics and behaviors of a particular population and using the results to improve outcomes.

The fundamentals of using panels for research

Discover how to harness the power of market research panels to stay connected with your audience’s evolving needs, spot fresh opportunities and enhance experiences with our latest eBook.

‘A basic guide to panel design’ lays out the essentials of panel management, offering step-by-step advice on building and utilizing your own market research panel effectively. You’ll learn the whys and hows of panel setup, plus tips for gathering high-quality insights.

eBook: A guide to building agile research functions in-house