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What is a research panel (and should we have one)?

10 min read
There is often confusion between having a research panel and buying a sample from a third party panel provider. In fact, these are two different solutions to the same need. To help you decide what’s right for you, we break down the difference between managing your own research panel and buying a sample.


What is a research panel?

A research panel is a group of people you have selected to take part in your survey research. Whether it’s the workforce of a small company or a major subset of a national population, the term research panel is a way of describing people who have agreed to take surveys on an ongoing basis.

Usually, these groups will be selected carefully so that they represent a sample of your target population, giving you an appropriate balance across age, gender, background, etc.

Why use a research panel?

Recruiting participants for survey research can take up a lot of time and effort, especially if your research topic is niche and the people you need to talk to are difficult to find. A research panel is a ready-made solution to that challenge, since it’s made up of the right people who are ready and willing to participate in your project.

5 benefits of using a research panel vs recruiting respondents ad hoc:

  1. You can use them multiple times. Survey panels can take the same survey again at different intervals, giving you a way to track trends and changes. Because it’s the same screened and qualified survey panel, you can be confident that the samples represent a like-for-like comparison.
  2. In-depth knowledge. Because it’s a committed membership rather than a one-off questionnaire, you can develop a deep understanding of research panel participants through their involvement in your research, allowing you a deeper and richer source of insights.
  3. They can be multi-purpose. A market research panel could also take part in other forms of research, such as focus groups and interviews, that you want to conduct now or in the future.
  4. Surveying them is quicker and easier than a brand new participant, since you already have their basic information on file. You can save the time you would otherwise have spent in finding people to take part, collecting their contact information, and chasing down those who haven’t gotten around to taking your survey.
  5. They’re pre-screened, so you can be assured of a high completion rate and accurate answers. People who have agreed to be part of a panel are likely to provide considered and accurate answers because they’re more committed and involved than people who have been recruited on a one-off basis. That means you get better-quality data from your study.

When might you use a research panel?

Clearly, not everyone doing survey research needs to have a research panel on hand at all times. Whether or not you choose to use one will depend on factors like:

  • Frequency
    If you want to run occasional surveys, a research panel is unlikely to be of value. If you’re running a lot, or you want to expand the amount you do, a panel could translate into significant savings.
  • Subject-matter
    Finding participants may be more difficult for research subjects that are sensitive, such as drug-use or sexuality. Likewise, you may want to use a panel if the participants you need are rare in the general population, such as families with triplets or people over 100 years old.
  • Scope and scale
    If your research project is a major one and likely to run over the long-term with multiple surveys and studies, recruiting a research panel is likely to be a good investment, both in terms of time and money saved and the quality of data you get.

Example use-cases for a research panel might include

  • a university research group studying smoking behavior in teenagers over a decade
  • a market research project in a large company looking to branch out into a new product area
  • a government department assessing mental health and quality of life in older people
  • a multinational food manufacturer interested in comparing preferences in taste and texture across different countries

Build your own in-house panel, or rent one?

When you have access to a ready-made sample of participants (such as customers, employees, students, members, etc.), you can recruit and manage your own research panel. But if you’re lacking respondents to take your survey, you might choose to buy a sample from a third-party panel.

Having an in-house research panel has gained in popularity over the past decade because they provide an organization with a pre-qualified and willing group of respondents to participate in surveys on an as-needed basis. A well-managed research panel allows the organization to quickly and easily get answers to key questions at a fraction of the cost of other market research methods.

Additionally, researchers are able to build rich, deep profiles about each panel member over time, which enables more targeted and personalized research. To put it simply, the major difference between the two are going to be the short-term vs the long-term cost of performing your research.

Building your own panel will be a longer process and more upfront work; However, if you plan on doing multiple studies and research projects over the next few years, making that initial investment can pay dividends down the road. Just like renting a house vs buying it, it all depends on how invested you are in that area.

What are the main benefits of managing your own panel?

  • Do more research: It’s easy and convenient to field surveys to your panel, allowing you to get more research done.
  • Faster insights: You’ll have responses back in less time than virtually any other method of research, allowing you to analyze your data quicker.
  • Richer profiles: Build rich, deep profiles about each panel member over time and use the data to enhance future studies.
  • Save money: Owning and managing your own panel generally costs less than purchasing a sample from another source.

What are the main benefits of buying a sample?

  • Speed: Research can be a slow process at first. Recruiting a panel takes time, which may not align with your timeline. For example, this might be the case if you have a product launching in 2 months and need to get the target demographic determined.
  • Short-term cost: If you are only planning on running a few studies over the coming months or years then buying a sample could be the cheaper option.
  • Bandwidth: There are only so many hours in the day. Managing a panel may not be the best use of your research team’s time if you are limited on bandwidth.
  • Diversity: When you buy from an external survey panel, you get to choose your demographics, which can be valuable for expanding your audience. For example, imagine you are a company that makes shaving razors for men and you are thinking about expanding your business with a female razor lineup. In this case, your current customer panel wouldn’t be the right audience to survey about the new product. In this case, buying a sample would likely be better.

How to build your own survey research panel

There are some frequent concerns that come up when people talk about building and managing their own panel. Some think it might take too much time, or they don’t feel qualified to run one. But in our experience working with different organizations and researchers of various amounts of experience, we’ve found that all of them have been able to become panel management experts with Qualtrics technology.

Steps to building your research panel:

  1. Identify your goals
    The first step is to be clear about why you’re building a panel and what your goals are. Make sure you have scoped out the long and short-term purpose of your panel and got buy-in from the right people within your business.
  2. Recruit your panel
    For most businesses, online panels are the go-to option. Social media, email, and existing channels of communication with your customers can all be ways to advertise your panel and invite people to participate.
  3. Send out an initial survey
    Use an initial survey to screen potential participants and rule out people who aren’t suitable for your panel (such as people in the wrong age group or geographical location). You can also start to segment your panel at this stage.
  4. Manage your panel over time
    Panel management software can help you keep track of your data on each panel member, the surveys you’ve sent out, and the results you’ve gathered.

How to choose a survey panel provider

If you’re thinking of buying a sample from a survey panel provider, here are a few things to look for:

  1. A large respondent pool
    It sounds obvious, but they need to be able to provide the right people at the right time. The best providers will have a vast range of possible respondents across different countries and demographic and social groups.
  2. Support when you need it
    A great provider will do more than just deliver the sample. They’ll be on hand to support you with questions about designing your survey, running the process, and conducting the right analysis afterwards.
  3. A panel that evolves over time
    For a truly great panel, recruitment should be continuous in order to keep up with population changes and shifts in the social and cultural landscape. On your behalf, your provider should keep their panel membership continually updated to provide a diverse and representative sample at all times.

Manage your research panel like a pro with our free Research Panel Management eBook