Embracing social media in online research panels

Social media presents marketing and research professionals with an opportunity to engage with panellists on a deeper level. Toluna explores how its panel community, Toluna.com, seeks to add value to the panellists online experience by incorporating social media concepts.

Lee%20PowneyIn recent years, the cost, speed and flexibility of conducting online research has fuelled a massive expansion in the popularity of online panel providers such as Toluna, as well as the creation of in-house panels by client-side organisations. Such online panels enable immediate access to millions of opted-in consumers, while allowing specific targeting of invitations, according to member profiles which are built up over time. 

For the uninitiated reader, an online panel is simply a group of individuals, recruited via various methods (such as banner advertising, pay-per-click and email), who are motivated by financially-based incentives to respond to surveys. The very basic quality-management requirements of a panel are to provide a double opt-in procedure, remove duplicate postal and email addresses, collect demographic information for sampling, limit the number of surveys a member can take, and provide an incentive/ reward mechanism for taking part in a survey. Reward mechanisms are nearly always financially related, for example “a dollar for your opinion” would not be an uncommon proposition for a panel.

A key challenge now faced by research professionals and panel companies alike is to overcome the problem of over-exposure, or the more often quoted “burn out” effect well known to those with experience of email marketing. Due to the sheer volume of survey invitations being sent to panellists and customers, and the number of pop-up surveys targeted at web traffic, response rates to surveys are declining across the industry.

Bearing in mind that there are a limited number of individuals who are predisposed to join an online panel or take part in a survey, this over-exposure compounds the problem of capacity to continue to service the growing demand for completed surveys.

Reducing burn-out

One possible solution to overcoming such falling response rates has been to gather more detailed profiling information from panellists. The more data held on an individual the more targeted a survey can be for a particular project. This, naturally, has the effect of only contacting the most relevant audience, thereby increasing response probability, but also reducing the burn-out effect on the panel as a whole. However, gathering hundreds of data points on an individual takes time, and requires the panellist to continually update their information.

The other solution to such a situation is to increase the financial rewards paid to members. However this has the added problem of encouraging multi-panel membership, attracting “professional” survey-takers, and largely avoids the problem of attracting panellists who would not normally have considered joining a panel. In fact incentives such as “earn an extra dollar for your opinion” do little to attract a broader population of consumers to join a panel.

After eight years of running online panels, now with 2.4 million members in thirty countries, it is our belief that such responses to the highlighted problems, although logical, and indeed effective in the short term to boost response and completion rates, stems from a one-sided, clinical view of the panellist.

Today’s mature, online consumer is a particularly sophisticated individual – one who is thoroughly used to creating, sharing, comparing and publishing content without technical barriers. One who, although most likely unaware of the terms Web 2.0 or digital/ social media, has become a practising disciple of the user-empowered revolution. Such individuals are as comfortable with publishing their own video, creating their own blog, managing their own professional network, social bookmarking and editing their Facebook page as they are simply consuming content in the “traditional” passive form of the publisher-consumer relationship.

Panels have audiences of millions and, like any brand wishing to effectively communicate to elicit a response or behavioural change, need to engage on a meaningful level, with a relevant, valued and simple message. It follows, therefore, that an increased level of involvement and perceived value of the relationship a consumer has with a panel brand transfers to the survey invitations each member receives. The more engaged members are with the panel experience, the more engaged they are with the surveys.

It is our belief that an online panel must adapt itself to improving the panellist’s online experience and provide a value which is not based purely on financial incentives, therefore attracting a wider pool of members.

The panel community arrives

In September 2007 we launched Toluna.com in the UK with 400,000 members. The site seeks to overcome response-rate and recruitment issues by embracing the social media concept. From the offset, the site has positioned itself as a “social voting” community. The panel empowers its members to create, share, compare and publish content in the form of topics and polls. In fact, the site empowers the community to conduct their own online research.

Members are able to create their own polls for the community to answer, see live demographic results and drill down into this data. They can create debates, rate user opinions and create personal profile pages describing themselves, their interests, opinions and voting history. Members can even create video and image polls with multiple response options. With every single vote and poll created, we record this data against the individual member’s profile, creating an organically generated mass of profiling data, allowing us to target surveys with an unheard of level of precision.

A powerful value

Routed in this “community” ethos is the desire to provide value to the panellist, something not based purely on financial rewards, a reason for interacting with the panel as a brand. Toluna. com is rapidly becoming known as an aid to consumer decision making – a site where social interaction across thousands of different topics and the ability to quantify the community’s attitudes and opinions is empowering panellists to become ever more active with the brand. Some of the polls attract thousands of votes and debate strings daily. Indeed, Toluna. com, now rolled out across the UK, France, Spain and Germany, is generating nearly six million votes per month with over sixty thousand contributions towards qualitative debates last month alone. Despite massive increases in the volumes of surveys undertaken on our panels, we have seen a dramatic stabilising effect on response and completion rates to surveys.

With such increases in engagement, driven by empowering our audience, comes a natural increase in brand involvement and perceived value. In fact, we are attracting tens of thousands of organically generated new members (not from recruitment campaigns), the majority of whom, we believe, would not otherwise have considered joining an online panel. Why? It’s simple – Toluna.com adds more value than “a dollar for your opinion”.

Toluna.com is aligned with the mature web audience of the post Web 2.0 revolution. It enables a consumer to conduct their own research, create their own debates and become subject matter experts. It re-balances the relationship between panel and panellist.

Lee Powney (pictured)
Head of marketing
Head of marketing, Toluna
2007 Corporate marketing manager, Toluna
2005 Head of marketing, Mekon Systems
2003 Marketing information systems consultant, Kingston Business School KTP

Frederic-Charles Petit
Chief executive
CEO and founder, Toluna
1998 Lawyer, Allen & Overy
1997 LLM from New York University