Customer Panels 101

Cathy Whitehead McIntyre

Customer panels are groups of people with common interests who agree to participate in research studies. The panel is usually created and maintained for a particular company’s customers, hence “branded customer panels”. But panels can be created for various groups of stakeholders, whether customers, members, employees, CSRs, partners, prospects, suppliers, or others. Panels work equally well in either business-to-consumer (B2C) or business-to-business (B2B) environments.

What Makes a Panel a Panel?

Here are some of the characteristics of a branded customer panel:

  • Panelists have regular opportunities to participate in a variety of research studies.
  • Panelists can opt out/unsubscribe from the panel list and future research initiatives at any time.
  • There are clear rules or guidelines to prevent fatiguing panelists (for example, no panelist is invited to take a survey more often than every 60 days).
  • Panelists’ survey activity is recorded and tracked. Frequency of invitations sent, frequency of participation and topics or types of research that generate interest are recorded.

Why Invest in a Panel?

Branded customer panels are a great tool for keeping your finger on your customers’ pulse, by allowing you to reach out to a pool of customers who have agreed to be contacted for marketing research purposes. But the value of branded customer panels is even greater than having a ready “sample” of research respondents. Here’s why.

  • Brands that ask questions, and then show that they have listened and taken action in response to what they have heard, earn their customers’ trust and inspire loyalty. Respondents tell me time and time again how deeply they value being asked for their opinions, and how much they love being asked to help improve their experiences as customers.
  • Brands with customer panels keep their customers engaged in an ongoing relationship. Like in any relationship, there is an ongoing dialogue that continues to deepen over time. Both customers and brands benefit from the experience.

Why Conduct Marketing Research?

Cathy Whitehead McIntyre

As a marketer, you might say that no one knows your customers better than you do. But would your customers agree? It’s amazing what we can learn from our customers and what they will tell us when we ask them what’s on their minds. It’s also remarkable how quickly their points of view can change! What we knew to be correct yesterday may not be so today.

Hearing from your target audience directly can be invaluable in helping you and your organization understand not just their points of view, but the larger marketplace in which your product or service competes. Hearing what your customers (or your competitors’ customers) have to say about your brand can help you identify opportunities with the potential to delight your current customers and attract new ones.

Here are some of the reasons why my clients rely on well-planned and professionally implemented marketing research:

  • To uncover fresh customer insights to drive strategy development and implementation
  • To gather customer input that will inform the development of new products or services
  • To evaluate marketing communications initiatives and make sure they motivate target audiences
  • To measure customer satisfaction and help determine the drivers of customer loyalty
  • To help develop positioning or branding strategies that differentiate the brand from competitive offerings

What Should I Budget for Focus Group Research?

Cathy Whitehead McIntyre

I get asked this question a lot. While every research study should be custom-designed to meet the specific objectives and needs of each client, here is a short list of just some of the variables that can affect your focus group research budget:

  1. Methodology

    Online or face-to-face? While a rough rule of thumb is that the cost per participant is about the same, more participants can be accommodated in an online Bulletin Board Focus Group (BBFG) than in a traditional face-to-face focus group, .

  2. Target Audience

    The composition of the target audience will drive the number of focus groups required. I generally advise my clients to conduct two groups with each target audience segment of interest. So if they have a primary and secondary target audience, for example, and we need to gain input from both segments, then four focus groups in total would be indicated. Sometimes it’s a good idea to conduct separate groups of men and women, or different groups for various ages of participants. An will be able to provide advice about how to compose the groups to make the participants comfortable and maximize their contributions.

  3. Recruiting

    We work with clients to develop recruitment screening questionnaires (“screeners”) that detail the in the focus groups. Recruiting costs can be affected by a number of factors, most often how tightly defined the criteria and how difficult it will be for the recruiters to find participants who fit the desired profiles. Heavy users of brands with smaller market shares will likely be tougher to find. Busy professionals may be more difficult to recruit than “gen pop” respondents. But clients who have permission to contact their customers for market research purposes, and can provide customer lists for recruiting, may realize some cost-efficiencies.

Quantitative or Qualitative?

Cathy Whitehead McIntyre

The question of “quant or qual?” is often debated, and everyone in the industry seems to have a predisposition to one or the other. Qualitative research is “an unstructured, exploratory research methodology based on small samples that provides insights and understanding”, while quantitative research “”. For me, the answer to the question of quantitative or qualitative goes back to the beginning – your research objectives. What kind of information are you looking for? What questions do you need answered? How will you use the data gathered in the research?

If your objective is to make a decision or recommend a final course of action – should we launch product A or product B? – and your goal is to find out how many customers feel a certain way – what percentage of your target audience prefers option A over option B, for example – you will likely consider quantitative research. The results of a quantitative study are descriptive or predictive, because they are based on a sample large enough for the results to be projected to the population of interest (current customers, women aged 18 to 49, or residents of the Greater Toronto Area, for example) with a specific level of confidence, within a desired margin of error. Quantitative data collection is done primarily through surveys (online, telephone, mail, in-person). The data is analyzed using statistical techniques.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, is exploratory in nature. When understanding the values, emotional drivers and motivations of the target audience is important, or when brainstorming or idea generation with consumers is helpful, qualitative research can generate valuable insights. Although the findings from qualitative research should not be considered conclusive and cannot be used to make generalizations to the population of interest because the sample size is too small to be projected, . Data are collected through focus groups, in-depth individual interviews, or projective techniques (such as word association, sentence completion, storytelling, personification, or other techniques, that help participants project underlying motivations, attitudes, beliefs or feelings that might otherwise be difficult for them to articulate).