The First Timer’s Guide to Surveying With Panels

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Surveys are important research tools, and the results can have far-reaching impacts on your company’s business plan or the results of your PhD. dissertation. When so much is riding on your data, getting high quality survey results will be the difference between successful, accurate insights and unreliable noise.

One of the most common questions we hear is how our survey-makers can find qualified survey-takers.

For some projects, the most effective way to get the responses you need is to use a panel company.

What is a Panel?

Panel companies collect and manage groups of people who are interested in taking surveys and participating in studies.

These companies track the demographic data of their respondents, so they are able to work with you to define the best audience for your survey. Then, they are able to serve it directly to that audience.

The individuals panel companies recruit are often rewarded for completing surveys, either with cash incentives or other rewards. Because they are rewarded for their time, panel respondents tend to be very motivated to complete surveys.

Costs for accessing these audiences vary depending on the specificity of your audience and the length of the survey.

The best panel companies review and test your survey prior to sending to their audience to ensure that both you and the respondents have a positive experience.

Why Would I Want to Use a Panel?

There are a number of really good reasons to turn to panels to find respondents for your survey. These are just our top three most common reasons:

  • You get responses to your survey! Panel companies have large databases of people who are willing and motivated to answer your surveys. This is particularly helpful when you have a very specific audience in mind, like parents who home school their children. You don’t have to go out looking for respondents; they come to you.
  • Access to highly specific populations. You receive an amazing level of access to a population of individuals that are pre-vetted to be relevant to your survey. However niche your target demographic, there is a panel company who has access to that group.
  • Fast turn around time. Because panel companies have a database of confirmed survey takers, they are able to field respondents much more quickly than any other distribution method.
  • There is a lot of variation in panel companies. Many try to create a representative audience, which means their respondents will reflect the demographics of the larger population.

Others seek to specialize in particular niches.

Do your research on the panel companies you are considering, and don’t be shy in reaching out to a project manager at the panel company. They will often help you to identify your target niche and ensure that they will be able to fulfill your needs.

Are Panel Companies Trustworthy?

Again, do your research. Many panel companies have a vetting process where they verify their respondents’ information.

Some panels that specialize in B2B will check their respondents’ credentials against LinkedIn. Others, as is the case for professionals like doctors, will check certifications with the state. Still others may require only a US bank account number for distributing rewards.

Because there is so much variety, ask your panel provider how they verify their respondents. Any reputable company will explain their process to you.

What Challenges Come With Using Panels?

While there are many good reasons to choose panels, there are potential challenges that you should be aware of.

  • Survey cost. Prices will vary depending on the panel company you use and how niche your target demographic is. Your panel company should quote you a per-respondent cost, but recognize that if you make last minute changes to your target demographics, that price may be affected.
  • Data collection time. While generally, panel companies are able to field responses faster than most other distribution methods, for highly specialized niches, getting the data you need can still take time. It’s good practice to allow for extra time between when you publish your survey and when you need your final results, just in case.
  • Data quality. Just because you’ve established your target demographic with your panel company, doesn’t necessarily mean every single respondent is who you’re looking for. It’s important to include Disqualify Logic early in your survey and to follow best practices for cleaning your data once responses have been collected.

What Questions Should I Ask My Panel Company?

Open communication is an important part of making sure you get the most out of your experience with a panel company. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about their panelists, vetting process, and service support. In fact, the market research organization ESOMAR has 28 questions prepared for you.

The first four questions we always ask when working with panels are:

  • Do you have more than one panel?
  • Is it difficult to fill my target audience quota?Do you partner with other panels if my quota can’t be reached by your panel alone?
  • What are your quality control measures?
  • An important part of keeping the lines of communication open with your panel company is to review responses midway through the project.

In reviewing the data, check whether or not you are receiving the right kinds of respondents and the level of data quality that you expect.

If changes in your target demographics do need to be made, you’ll be able to pivot. This will save you valuable time and money over the lifetime of your project.

Once your survey data is collected, close the feedback loop by supplying the panel company with a list of any culled poor quality response IDs and the reason why they are being rejected. This helps the panel company review panelist quality and improve their service by warning or removing those respondents who are not quite up to snuff.

How Big Should My Survey Sample Size Be?

The cost for contracting a panel is largely determined by specificity of your target audience and how many responses you are purchasing. To keep your project in budget, it’s important to know how many responses you need to get the data you want.

Fortunately, there is a simple calculation for determining sample size.

Keep in mind:

  • Population. What is the size of the entire population that you want to survey?
  • Margin of error. What margin of error are you comfortable with? For most survey projects, a margin of error of 5% is acceptable.
  • Confidence. How sure are you that the sample of the population that responds to the survey reflects the larger population? The most commonly accepted confidence level is 95%. 

If you are unsure of the size of the total population, a good sample to work with is 400 respondents. We also recommend using this handy calculator from Relevant Insights.

For a full guide to determining the best sample size for your survey project, see our Guide to Survey Sample Size.

Survey Design When You’re Working With Panels

In addition to our best practices for Great Survey Design, there are a few additional guidelines we recommend for survey creators intending to use panel companies.

The first is to set up Disqualify Logic early in your survey to make sure that the people who are taking your survey are the people you are trying to reach. This will save you money, as ideally you’ll only be charged for completed surveys, and will result in cleaner, more pertinent data.

Also, if you need demographic data about your respondents, ask for it in the survey. Some panel companies are able to share demographic data with you after the results of your survey are collected, but this is not usually provided. It can incur an additional fee, or the panel company may not be able to provide the information at all.

In addition, every year we notice that more and more panelists choose to take surveys on the go. A large percentage of respondents are taking your survey from their mobile devices and tablets, so make sure to test your survey on a mobile device prior to publishing!

Let Alchemer Help Make Your Panel Survey a Success

Our panel ordering and management services help you get the most from your panel respondents.

Alchemer’s panel specialists will help you set up Disqualify Logic within your survey to ensure responses meet your criteria, establish quotas, and liaise directly with our vetted panel providers.

Once the survey is complete, the specialist will clean your data to ensure the highest quality responses.

To find out more about using panels and working with our panel specialists, read our expert tips for Getting Great Survey Data from Panel Respondents.

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