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"Your cheatin' heart,
Will pine some day,
And crave the love,
You threw awayÛ_"

When Hank Williams recorded this jewel of country wisdom in 1952, he wasn't thinking about pork by-products. But his words perfectly capture the experience a client of mine recently had when asking its community panel members about frozen meat.

That client, a large media company, ran a study testing ad effectiveness for one of their clients, a frozen meat company. The media company's sales department was using the panel to deliver market research insights as a way of creating extra value for this meat company. Sounds like a win-win, right?

Not for the panel members. Since the panel was run by a media company, it was mainly used to do research on the media services they offer. That set the expectation that panel members would be asked about media products and services; thus the panelists felt they could potentially influence those offerings. When they were asked not about media, but about frozen pork , many of them were surprised and frustrated by it. They felt cheated when their efforts were suddenly subordinated to facilitate some behind-the-scenes deal.

That's because, just like spouses, panel members have expectations. These expectations around the nature of our interactions with them are usually implicit, and are critical to maintaining their trust. When we violate those expectations, panel members can become upset and frustrated. That's a major reason why people quit panels.

One of the most central expectations panel members have is their expectation of what a panel is about. When we ask off-topic questions - or deploy an entire survey about a different theme - we violate that expectation.

You can deviate from the normal research topics on your panels every once in a while, of course. But if you want to do so without causing lasting harm, you need to think carefully about how your off-topic activities may conflict with panel members' expectations, and thus, affect their level of trust and engagement.
Here are four ways you can respect panel members' expectations, and safeguard their trust, when you are asking off-topic questions:

  • 1. Let your panelists know in the invite and introduction of the survey that you are taking them 'off topic'.
    2. Add an extra incentive (i.e. gift card). It does not have to be large; it is more a symbol of your gratitude.
    3. Share back some of the results in the newsletter that follows.
    4. Thanks them at the end of the survey, and then again in any upcoming newsletters.

While some of these are standard practices that apply to any survey, they are doubly important when you are going off-topic. As a rule, if your survey deviates from the main theme of your panel you should plan to make an extra effort in showing your appreciation."

A few well-placed messages can keep your relationship with panel members healthy for the long term. And that will do all of your hearts good.

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