Being in business development at Vision Critical, I live and breathe Community Panels and market research technology solutions. My colleagues and I spend countless hours each week passionately talking about, and introducing folks in the market to the methodology and benefits that our philosophy and approach deliver - illustrating what it is that makes VC unique. The general theme of these initial discussions is in educating people in the market as to what Community Panels are, and, equally as importantly, as to what they are not.
Inevitably, we encounter a lot of misconceptions and confusion around the definitions and key differentiators between Community Panels and Market Research Online Communities (MROCs), between Access Panels and proprietary solutions, and where and when these approaches are most effectively leveraged based on each company's specific needs. If you combine this complexity with the fact that each provider of these services has their own unique approach, terminology, etc., it's not surprising that the path is not always clear for companies when walking into the world of advanced online research. In an attempt to provide some clarity on the subject, I wanted to outline how we define Community Panels, MROC's, Access Panels, and highlight some of the key characteristics associated with each of these approaches to research.
Community Panels are generally places where a brand and its customers can hold direct conversations. They lend themselves to open discussions where consumers are prepared to give more of their time. As community panels are always active, once setup, data can be obtained very quickly, even within hours. Community panels generally start around the two thousand member mark, though they can be smaller, and can be as large as 100,000 people, depending on what the client's needs are. Speed aside, the other strong advantage that Community Panels have is that because of their size, they are setup for both quantitative and qualitative research. This means fast and iterative validation cycles which ensure that ideas and concepts are well refined, while providing a first-rate member facing experience.
MROCs (or Market Research Online Communities) are typically comprised of a brands customers, normally in the hundreds (often less than one hundred for short-term MROCs) and with a heavy qualitative focus. Typically, highly engaged, they can last from a few days/weeks/months to 2-3 years. This makes them excellent for ideation and co-creation. They are usually used in combination with other tools; however, as numbers of members within the communities are usually insufficient for the quantitative validation of concepts and that the members who have co-created the products have an inherent bias. Vision Critical's technology solutions support both Community Panels and smaller more focused MROCs.
Online Access Panels started emerging shortly before the start of the new Millennium, and by 2005 they were firmly established. Compared to traditional methods, they were a lot cheaper and faster and for many brands the move to online Access Panels represented a major cost saving. There were a lot of questions that were raised initially such as;
- Are they truly representative?
- What is there to stop ideas being stolen or spread on the web?
- Who is actually responding to my surveys on these panels?
- Are too many surveys being answered by the same small core of 'professional' respondents?
But as more brands adopted access panels for their research and panel owners were able to develop technological solutions to mitigate these issues, concerns began to phase out. The key benefits to clients of leveraging Access Panels are that the client does not have to set them up, nor do they have to look after them. They allow unbranded surveys to be run with both customers and competitors' customers, and enable both effective ongoing tracking studies with the broader consumer base, and access to nationally representative sample.
They also offer what some perceive as being the advantage of keeping the brand's identity unknown, although brands are starting to realize that this is not always the best approach or even a necessity in order to generate top quality insights.
All of this being said, assuredly no two Community Panels, Access Panels or MROCs are exactly alike in the market, however I hope this provides a broad outline of what you can expect from each of these approaches, and which might be more suitable based on specific needs. We have also created a more detailed paper describing the differences between Community Panels, MROCs, and Access Panels and their pros and cons.
If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to leave them below or contact me directly.