Online Panels: Benefits and Limitations
A web panel (also referred to as “online or internet panel”) could be defined as “an access panel of people willing to respond to web questionnaires”. An “access panel” specifically means a sample database of potential respondents who declare that they will co-operate for future data collection (if selected that is).
While national statistical institutes, such as Statistics Canada, have mostly refrained from using such methods, the market research industry has been an early and significant adopter. Before using a web panel, one should consider its benefits and limitations.
Let’s start with the positives.
Research can be conducted and results received within a few days rather than several weeks or months with face-to-face and phone collection methods. Michel Berne, Partner, and Co-Founder of Ad Hoc Research, a market research firm based in Montreal told POTLOC:
There is no doubt web panels can be more efficient and faster (than traditional survey methods). Over the years, there has been a significant shift: web panels have essentially overtaken telephone surveys (partly for that very reason). Research that used to take four weeks of data collection now only takes one.
With traditional survey techniques, you may have to print out questionnaires and provide writing instruments to your respondents. You also might have to invite them for an interview at a facility or call up each one to remind them of the meeting. With web research panels, these elements are off the expense list.
Online questionnaires are set up online and can be adjusted almost instantly, without having to waste any paper. Email reminders can be sent automatically to respondents, at the most optimal time window of their day. This can reduce labor costs tremendously.
An element that often gets lost when discussing web panels is the ability to sign up respondents in different countries. Running surveys completely remotely in an automated manner is invaluable for international projects, eliminating many roadblocks such as air travel as well as finding interviewers who speak specific languages proficiently.
Now let’s look at some of the main limitations of web panels.
Many web panel sites advertise that you can earn $5-$35 per questionnaire. However, chances are you’ll need to dedicate at least twenty minutes if not one hour to complete just one. This often translates into below minimum wage depending on where the respondent resides.
This incentive structure makes web panels more attractive to unemployed or low-income respondents. Furthermore, unlike phone surveys where surveyors will randomly select phone numbers to create a representative sample, web panel members are autoselected, thus making web panel non-probabilistic samples. As a result, we can’t calculate the margin of error for surveys using this methodology.
Restricted Internet Population
Evidently, individuals who are able to participate in web panels are those who have access to the internet. If you aim to reach countries or rural areas with low internet penetration, you may want to focus on traditional face-to-face or phone interview methods instead. To put things in perspective, consider that 39% of rural residents in the United States lacked fixed internet broadband service two years ago, compared to 4% of city dwellers.
Low Data Integrity
Data integrity can be a concern when dealing with data collected from web panels. Respondents may engage in a number of less than optimal strategies to complete surveys so they can obtain the offered rewards or incentives. Such can lead to undesirable responses such as false answers, answering too fast, giving the same answer in a repeated manner, as well as getting multiple surveys completed by the same respondent.
Individuals involved in market research have a number of reasons for implementing web panel frameworks as part of their strategies, however like any methodology such should be carefully evaluated before and after marketing campaigns occur.