Finding consumers who are willing to share opinions on a product and its performance has always appealed to brands. With large numbers of engaged users, consumer panels can provide a flexible approach to sourcing qualitative and quantitative data that can make or break product launches, packaging designs and marketing campaigns.
With social media and mobile communications facilitating fast and easy collection and collation of such data, consumer panels could be entering a new era of relevance. For brands operating globally, panels are becoming an indispensable way to learn what consumers think of them.
Games giant Sega, for example, is monitoring the long-term brand performance and positioning for one of its games, looking at its strengths among its core target audience and the competition, explains Lucy Rolf, its senior European research executive.
The project, run with research group Toluna, will measure how the brand evolves because of changes in advertising and marketing, and also in response to wider market developments. It employs online consumer panels which have the ability to bring together large numbers of people who meet specific criteria. “Some of our audiences are very niche and targeted, so a key thing for us is to ensure we use panels that are very established and have as wide a panel base as possible.
“We need to ensure that we are not just getting the numbers that we need but that we are getting as robust and as wide an overview of the market as possible, and that the quality is there in terms of the figures we are getting back. We need to work with agencies that aren’t necessarily the biggest but which have access to our niche audiences,” she adds.
Since many of Sega’s games are established franchises, the company is keen to understand as much as it can about how audiences interact with them. “It’s important for us to move more towards quantitative research, ensuring we get a long-term detailed viewof audiences. Previously, we were doing a lot of work in qualitative testing,” says Rolf.
However, he says qualitative panels will still be important, and connected consumers enable mass participation for both types of research.
While gamers constitute a passionate audience that is keen to share opinions, they are trumped by new parents when it comes to engagement with relevant brands. Parenting group Bounty runs the largest consumer panel of mothers and young families in the UK, with more than 37,000 members. Opportunities to join the club are extended from the first scan that mums-to-be attend, and Bounty packs of baby products are given out on maternity wards. Many members go on to join the Word of Mum panel.
Bounty Club members are constantly seeking and sharing information, especially among first-time parents. This leads to an engaged and responsive panel that other brands can access. “We see our panel as a community in its own right and one of the critical success factors is that there is a fair exchange of value with mums,” says Bounty chief marketing officer Brian Walmsley. Where possible, information from surveys is shared with panel members, who receive small cash incentives for participation that can be donated to charity if they prefer.
“Brands can put a poll out there and get an answer back in half an hour from a few hundred mums,” says Walmsley. And the nature of the brands that use the Bounty panel has evolved since it was launched in 2005, as engaged panels have shown they can provide relevant comment on big issues.
Although the highest users are still companies such as Procter & Gamble, with a large range of products directly relevant to babies, there has been increasing participation by providers of financial services, and also by charitable and social organisations, says Walmsley. Independent thinktank the Centre for Social Justice used the Word of Mum panel to ask about issues such as social exclusion; the findings were used in its report Forgotten Families? The Vanishing Agenda, which was published in 2012.
Setting clear targets for each research project is essential to getting good value from them, says Rolf. The long development cycle of new games can mean that a lot of Sega’s consumer panel research is necessarily long-term and the data will be chewed over for some time.
“Even with the quantitative approach, it is really to open the discussion because we have many parties around the table: design, production, marketing. We have a lot of people to convince. The goal is not to have a lot of data but to go and analyse it,” adds Jean Yves Lapasset, director of business analysis at Sega Europe.
For German condom brand Billy Boy, consumer panels have proved their value by providing insight that can be presented to retailers as the brand seeks listings in UK stores. A mix of online and face-to-face panels provided feedback on the brand’s provocative packaging, which features a cartoon penis.
“The most powerful stuff that consumers told us was the market was staid and boring, that nothing had changed and that it was patronising the way that brands spoke to consumers,” says marketing director Chris Clarke. Many respondents felt condoms were sold in a clinical environment at odds with their purpose.
Not all feedback is positive. A London panel of gay men aged from 20 to 25 disliked the packaging, for example. “They felt we were trivialising sex,” says Clarke. The gay market and the retailers that did not like the cartoon imagery is now targeted with the White range. This features clean and restrained packaging.
For many consumer panel users, the technology that allows such quick feedback could be just the beginning, says Jason Winstanley, a senior insight and research manager at food group Moy Park. “Things are moving so fast, you have no idea what is around the corner. If you looked back three or four years ago, you wouldn’t have envisaged the kind of technology we’ve got now. I would certainly see a lot more interaction through smartphones or through apps. I only see this kind of thing becoming more ingrained in the business.”
The prospect of panellists providing feedback via smartphones while they are shopping gives an entirely new element to research, he says: “If we had 500 people in a store yesterday and 350 of them couldn’t find the chicken fillets, that kind of thing is quite powerful.”
Head of research
Marketing Week (MW): Why are you taking the in-house approach to your consumer panel?
Tina Mermiri (TM): It’s primarily because we want control of both the process and the data. We work very closely with the different stakeholders across the business tounderstand their needs and priorities and we are therefore able to offer a more informed approach around research, which will more effectively answer our questions.
There is also a certain element of ownership and immediacy to doing that as we are able to set up the projects relatively quickly, but most importantly we are able to go back to the data and interrogate in different ways and for different purposes.
MW: What kind of objectives do you have for the panels?
TM: The idea of the panels is a result of multiple ad-hoc requests that take a lot of time and money to manage and set up; they are often quite similar in nature and with a focus on our engaged customers.
The objectives would therefore be twofold: to streamline the process of addressing ad-hoc requests and issues around survey fatigue; and to create a platform where we would expect our members to have intelligent, interactive and honest conversations with us.
MW: What are the benefits of using panels?
TM: There is a strong demand for this across the business already and the value is clear for us – it will give us more freedom and flexibility to get a deeper understanding of and better engagement with our customers in a more efficient way.
MW: How big will the panels be and where will you host them?
TM: We’re still working around the logistics, but the idea would be that we have around 500 members at any one time and to cover our international markets. These would be online and we are looking into several tools to run these – one option would be to use off-the-shelf tools like Jive, though we are also considering Salesforce, which we are already using for different purposes within the business.
Demystifying the global consumer
For a global travel brand such as Hotels.com, keeping on top of what consumers need in any given market is a demanding task, says senior marketing manager Oliver Garner (above). Consumer panels are used to address that issue. From consumer motivation to the importance of different features to their choice of venue, panels can break down local preferences and help the company communicate more effectively with its customers, or to win over new ones.
Panel members are asked, for example, to rate numerous factors such as price or a swimming pool, or perhaps a price match guarantee in order of importance when choosing a hotel. Both business and recreational travellers are researched in this way, and the results can affect everything from site design to marketing.
“You will see with all of these sorts of pieces of work that they are significantly important in terms of the data level and the accuracy level. But I think it is also understanding that there is a trade-off between their needs and wants and actually ascertaining what are the unique selling points between us and any competitors,” says Garner.
“We are operating in so many countries. We use consumer panels for localisation, and so on, so we are running them concurrently. We are operating them across multiple departments as well. We have standard ones but we will also run ad hoc panels.
“For example, customer motivation is one that we have refreshed relatively recently. I think if we are trying to delve into specific areas of interest, or areas on the usability perspective, which is where we probably run the highest proportion of these, we carry them out on an ongoing basis.”
No beef with rapid feedback
For Jason Winstanley, senior insight and research manager for food group Moy Park, consumer panels have become an indispensable tactical resource.
As well as maintaining a panel of around 50 consumers to provide regular feedback, Winstanley has been using the Toluna Quick Survey service for the past 18 months.
The speed and convenience of being able to quickly reach an appropriate panel of consumers means the company, which specialises in chicken products both under its own brand names and as own-label products for retailers and fast-food chains, has become a regular user.
“We can get a few hundred people, fire some questions at them and get their answers within a few hours. And that is really valuable to me, it supplements our ongoing research work and allows us to ask questions and get quick answers,” says Winstanley. A recent example showed six packaging themes to consumers, asking them to identify the best and worst and explaining why they had made those choices. The results were presented to a retailer within days.
Each survey starts by asking where the respondent does their main and regular top-up shopping, says Winstanley: “Then we can always cut the results by retailer. We can go to a retailer and say ‘Your shoppers are telling us this, but if you look at the market as a whole they are telling us something else, and your shoppers differ here’.”
The targeted results give the company data that it could not obtain from large-scale syndicated research providers, and Winstanley is pleased with its accuracy. When the system is used to ask questions that can be crosschecked elsewhere the results stack up, he says.
When it comes to big issues, the speed of response is even more useful. As a chicken specialist, Moy Park has not been directly affected by the horsemeat scandal, but was able to act quickly to reassure clients and staff. Winstanley asked the panel about trust in processed food in general, and whether the horsemeat issue would make them more likely to choose chicken products.
“I ran two surveys: one after the [Tesco] burger incident and another after the Findus lasagne story. Attitudes have shifted as the crisis has deepened. Some people are less likely to buy processed food, with probably about 30 per cent of people saying they will buy less, and about the same number saying they will switch to chicken.
“There are people saying it has put them off meat entirely. It does seem to have really registered with people. But what I’m planning to do is leave it for a few weeks, wait for the dust to settle, and then run another panel with the same number of people.
“Other research techniques would take too long to turn around. The day after the Findus lasagne story ran, I had the results back and distributed around our business. It stops the speculation and lets people know where we stand.”