Editor’s note: Rudly Raphael is president of QuestionPro Audience, a Chicago-based market research firm.  

The passing of Aretha Franklin in August brought me back to her glorious music. Of course, “Respect” played on repeat on my streaming device, even at work. It’s a transcendent song about how we often marginalize and take for granted those who bring positive results to our lives.

In my view, there is a lack of R-E-S-P-E-C-T for online participants from many market researchers. Annie Petit, a research methods consultant based in Toronto, said to me recently, “It’s very easy for researchers to have unrealistic expectations of participants.”

The lack of respect and understanding of online audiences is growing and the general public is developing a negative view of MR. This has led to a wide range of criticisms of online participant dependability, the value of information gathered and the need for incentives.

With just a bit more appreciation and knowledge of online research participants we can leverage their insights for more accurate data in studies and be more professional.

Online research panelists

An online panel is a community of research participants who share specific characteristics in common: general consumers, IT decision-makers, beer drinkers, etc. They provide their opinion to research questions that fall into their area of expertise. 

Without a doubt, online research panelists are experts in their area of interest. They are thought leaders, understanding your products or industry better than anyone. Creating a well-chosen, well-developed and highly engaged community of experts for online research purposes is critical.

The process of developing an online research panel involves collecting and storing critical profile data from each member of the panel. This includes demographic, psychographic, lifestyle, employment and household decision-making responsibilities.

Let’s look at an example. Whole Foods is looking for a reaction regarding a new product for toddlers from mothers ages 20-to-25. These moms are the real experts, more so than pediatricians, food executives or Internet influencers. 

The reality is whether it’s young moms in a study or Bill Gates at a tech conference, thought leaders typically provide quality data because they have skin in the game.

What about incentives?

Critics that disparage the effectiveness of rewards for online panels should offer some respect. Recent studies have shown that incentives do improve survey data quality. What’s more, the Market Research Association lists three benefits of survey incentives:

  • overall enhancement of response rates;
  • improved response rates from hard-to-reach groups; and
  • increase efficiency, especially when it comes to non-response follow-ups. 

It’s important to know that incentives are not bribes. They are based on the social exchange model, which states that positive social behavior is the result of an exchange process and this maximizes benefits and minimizes costs. Also, time is the most valuable commodity for many demographics so incentives help reduce bias or hurried responses.

When we were discussing this issue, Petit said, “The token gifts we offer do not compensate for the 30 minutes [respondents] can’t spend with their kids or watching Netflix, and those gifts certainly don’t match the hourly rates people earn at their jobs. We need to respect the fact that people freely offer us the best possible information they can within the limits of the quality of the questionnaire we give them.”

Many research practitioners agree with this comment, including Kathleen Boyse, Jump Associates, who contends that empathy is essential for research departments to gain quality data.  

Show, don’t tell

Take Home Depot, for example. The company generated more than $100 billion in revenue in 2017. One-third of this revenue comes from equipment rentals and other purchases made by building professionals. To remain competitive and continue growing revenue, the company relies on incentivizing online participants. 

A recent study revealed that most of Home Depot’s audience is made up of building professionals and small contractors with no more than five employees and less than $500,000 in annual revenue. This demographic lists product availability and price as its top concerns. By continually tapping into its online building professionals and general contractor panels –  specifically the sample that makes daily decisions on tools and building materials – Home Depot is able to gain fresh insights. Research has been a part of the company’s incredible growth in recent years.

What’s more, brands like Home Depot gain other benefits of online participants, including:

  • the ability to reach demographics across a broader geography;
  • faster data recovery; and
  • features that permit customization of the respondent experience.

Better data 

Researchers need experts and thought leaders that are engaged. To have an effective online sample, researchers need to rely on expertise, empathy and plenty of respect. When researchers are meeting the right experts, brands gather better data that leads to improved services and superior products, whether it’s for toddlers, general contractors or everyone in between.