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So, perhaps you were thinking that an employee community panel could be of use to your organization. But before you go too far into the process, perhaps you or the other stakeholders are wondering just what the best applications are for an employee community panel.

As mentioned in a previous article, employee panels can be for more than HR/satisfaction research. Employees can be a great source of insight about your brand, your advertising/communications and products/services. Sometimes organizations are hesitant to move forward with an employee community panel thinking there just isn't enough research that can be done, or that it can only have HR topics such as policy or satisfaction.

However, usually it's a matter of thinking outside the box a bit, and organizations find that the research opportunities abound.

Here are some scenarios, just to give an idea of what is possible. Of course, the sky is the limit, and options vary considerably amongst different types of organizations. Many of these ideas are often tested amongst consumers rather than employees, but all of these ideas can be applied successfully with an employee panel.

Scenario One: An apparel retailer tests out catalogue pages
An apparel retailer has an online retail site and has some questions. For example, should the models' faces be shown? Do women prefer thinner models or ones that may be perceived as more 'realistic'? Do online customers know that they can assemble outfits and view them online together? Would consumers prefer that the images be viewable from different angles? They address these questions as well as many others by implementing a series of concept tests on their employee panel. The retailer uses a concept testing tool and is able to answer general layout questions as well as specific promotions and seasonal approaches. Many of the employees are shoppers themselves and can answer knowledgeably about what will work best with customers. Over time, the panel is able to build benchmarks so that scores can be evaluated more accurately. With an online panel, the employees can be grouped into different demographic and behavioral segments (male, female, shoppers, online enthusiasts, impulse spenders, etc.) and the surveys targeted appropriately. Further the data can be viewed by these different groupings, giving more insight.

Scenario Two: A grocery chain tests its weekly flyer layout
A grocery chain wants to know which flyers are being read and which are getting tossed out. By using a virtual mailbox tool with their employee panel, they see which ones are getting opened and read, which are saved for later, and which are tossed. Follow up questions isolate the elements that are confusing and those that are compelling, so the best flyer layout can be used. Since there is no individual study cost, layouts can be tweaked and re-tested. The end result is more effective layouts that get read more often - and better communications to the end customer.

Scenario Three: A beverage manufacturer needs ideas for advertising
A beverage company wants to get a better sense of the situation or occasion in which consumers enjoy their product. While the company is aware of common consumption situations, they want nuances that can lead to a truly resonating ad campaign. The company asks employees on their online community panel to work with a collage tool which allows them to compile images of specific situations - relaxing with friends, out for the evening or a family gathering - and the right product for the occasions. These collages, once reviewed and compiled, are used to develop a creative brief with the ad agency. The end result is an ad campaign that incorporates insight about how the product fits in to an enjoyable outing , and for lower cost than the corresponding consumer research.

Of course this is just a small sampling of ideas, there is no shortage of possibilities. As well, an associated benefit in each of these situations is that employees enjoy participating in the research, feel appreciation for being consulted, and develop a sense of ownership for the outcomes. Further, employee research can be much more cost effective than researching amongst outside respondents.

A note of caution, it's often best to decide early on in the process of considering an employee community panel whether the purpose is primarily HR or primarily consumer type research. While it is technically possible to do both, there tends to be a focus on personal anonymity when asking about HR topics. It is advisable to be careful about the tone a panel takes, and if the purpose is primarily HR, you may wish to convey that only HR people will be sending out surveys and research requests and that the results will not be available to anyone outside HR. If marketing or consumer research is also conducted, it is possible that employees may feel less confident in the anonymity of their responses.

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