A prescription for success

Editor's note: Jerry Arbittier is CEO of Arbittier Opinion Panel Systems LLC. He can be reached at jerry.arbittier@aops.us.

In the summer of 2000, I met with Howard Ziment, CEO of the Ziment Group, a marketing research company that specialized in health care. He was interested in building a panel of physicians to complete marketing research surveys on the internet. Ziment was an early believer in the value of developing a physician panel. In fact, by the time we met, he had been working on the concept for five years and had recruited around 8,000 physicians. At our meeting, he told me that a major competitor had indicated that they had a physician panel. Competition breeds innovation, as the saying goes, and in this case competition increased the urgency for building the panel. He sought me out because of my background in building panels for media marketing research company Arbitron. While media research and health care research are quite different, he felt my experience would allow me to build a successful physician panel. I accepted the position, not realizing that his vision would lead to what is now estimated to be a $300-$400 million data collection industry.

Currently, between 5-10% of physicians in the United States participate in marketing research studies each year. A physician marketing research study usually includes only 150-250 respondents because of the limited population and the limited participation rate. This is minuscule in comparison to the size of most consumer studies. Greater insights could be obtained if larger physician sample sizes could be reached by the existing data collection companies. In fact, all the current data collection companies increase the number of respondents that they can deliver by purchasing sample from their competitors as their respondent delivery drops over the fielding of a study. However, even with this pooling of resources (termed “topping off”), they cannot obtain exceptionally large numbers of respondents for a study. 

There are many types of companies (e.g., marketing research firms, publications, promotion firms) that maintain physician contact information but do not use it to augment the current pool for health care data collection. This is a waste because adding these physicians to the top-off pool would achieve two goals: supply larger sample sizes so that health care marketing researchers can do more in-depth studies; and supply another revenue stream for the participating companies.

The purpose of this article is to provide a toolkit for converting a company’s health care contact database into a health care panel.

A blue stethoscope.

Step 1: Contact database vs. marketing research panel

There are different definitions for what is a contact database and what is a marketing research panel. For our purposes, the difference between the two is based on the quality of the contact information and the likelihood that the contact will respond to a request to complete a survey. Some contact databases are not useful for doing marketing research. For example, the information in the database may have been obtained from a hospital directory where the doctor’s name is provided but their e-mail and telephone numbers are not directed to the doctor themselves but to a centralized service. There would be little point in using this type of database to recruit for a marketing research study.

Some companies have health care contact databases that are very accurate and relevant. The database information may be used to deliver promotions, magazine subscriptions, in-house marketing research, etc. However, these databases are not the same as the panel database used by data collection companies for health care marketing research firms because for a panel database, the database has been optimized to get higher response and the respondents have agreed to receive surveys.

The panel database has been optimized to produce higher response rates by:

  • gaining agreement with the respondent to do marketing research;
  • exclusively using the respondent’s contact information for health care marketing research studies; 
  • providing substantial honoraria for completing a study and paying the physicians promptly;
  • providing studies that are relevant to the physicians; and 
  • adhering to a set of strict terms and conditions and privacy rules.

Step 2: Contact database review

The second step to developing a panel is to determine the validity of your company’s database. It is important to do an honest assessment. The difference in cost of developing a health care panel from a good contact database vs. a bad one can be millions of dollars. The assessment of your database can be based on a priori assumptions. However, it is probably worth taking some more objective measures. Sending the database to a service to process it for bouncebacks, duplicates, etc., will provide statistics as to its quality. If, after reviewing your database, you conclude that you can obtain at least 500 physicians in a specialty to opt-in to take surveys, then it is likely worth moving forward to convert the database into a panel for that specialty. (Note: The number needed can be smaller for very targeted specialties such as gynecology, oncology or bariatric surgeons as long as there will be enough demand to maintain response rates.)

Step 3: Developing a champion

I have found that one of the hardest things in building a health care panel is developing a champion within the company to run it. Everyone has day-to-day job requirements and developing a panel is typically something outside of the normal work stream. While the champion will need to have good, logical reasoning, it is equally important to have someone who is enthusiastic about the task. You can hire someone from outside the organization to do this but it is likely to be harder for a new person to learn the company culture and structure than it will be to develop the panel using internal resources. Finding the correct incentives for an internal employee is the best way to move forward. In addition, hiring internally has the added benefit of showing that you are providing growth opportunities within the organization.

Step 4: Registration survey

If you have the right database and the correct person to lead development, then the next step is to create a survey to register the physician into the panel. Typically, one advantage of a panel is collecting a set of information one time and then you do not have to collect it each time you do a new survey. This does not work well in health care. Most health care marketing research firms want information to be current and therefore even if you have the data in your panel database, they will ask the respondent to provide the information again in their survey. Because of this, the registration survey should be short and only needs to include information regarding the health care professional’s specialty; their contact information; an opt-in agreement based on specific terms and conditions; an explanation of privacy rules and a consent to transfer personal information; verification of credentials; and a thank-you page. The registration survey should not take more than five minutes to complete. A short registration survey also has the advantage of obtaining a high participation rate.

Step 5: Mailing out the registration survey

It is important to remember that when you send the registration survey to your contact database, you have not yet obtained consent from the respondent to receive invitations to a survey. If you hire an outside company to do a mass mailing, while they might not require that contacts in your database have agreed to get the e-mail, they will typically require that you adhere to the following: 

  • provide the ability for the respondent to opt out of future mailings;
  • remove any words from the invite e-mail that the mailing company believes will typically cause it to be viewed as spam;
  • do not include images in the e-mail;
  • follow CAN-SPAM Act guidelines.

It is also recommended that the bulk mailings only include around 1,000 e-mails at a time. The aim of all of the above is to avoid getting blacklisted by internet providers. If you do the mass mailing using your own company, it is still recommended that you follow the above guidelines so that your company’s mail server does not get blacklisted. In addition, it’s best to have an active survey with a fair honorarium available to the respondent at the end of the registration process.

Step 6: The e-mail invitation

An e-mail invitation that obtains the best response typically will not have many words. It should highlight three key points: length of the survey (in minutes); survey topic – this should be under five words; and the amount of the honorarium for completing the survey. If you go into elaborate detail about the topic or benefits to the medical community for completing the questionnaire, you will lower the response.

Step 7: Storing the panel

When first starting out, you will likely be able to store the panel on simple Excel spreadsheets. But as the company grows, having a professional panel system will be necessary. You will need this so that you can maintain statistics on your panel activity, track reminders and find non-active respondents, etc. Luckily there are relatively low-cost software packages to do this as long as the panel is not too large.

Step 8: Building a panel website

When you are registering a panel, it is most likely that the respondent will want to get background information on your company. The best way to do this is to develop a panel website and direct the respondent to learn about the company from it. It is important to not develop the website within the website of your current business. Combining the two will be confusing for both the respondents and your current clients.

The website should address the following: information about the company; a way to register for the panel and a method to opt-out of the panel; terms and conditions for joining the panel; and privacy rules. It should also let the panelist update their profile, manage their honoraria and contact the help desk.

Step 9: Maintaining response

After getting respondents into the panel, the next step is to keep them registered in it and responding to surveys. All health care panels pay substantial honoraria for completing surveys. The exact amount is dependent on the length of survey, the quota size, the specialty and the topic.

Research has found that the primary reasons for physicians completing surveys are: obtaining the honorarium; learning about new medications and procedures; and making an impact on the industry by having their opinions heard.

And out of the above three reasons, the amount of the honorarium is by far the most important. You can more than triple your response rate by doubling your honoraria.

In addition, over the years I have sat in many long meetings about how to increase panel engagement. However, I have only seen two processes that really work: quick honoraria payment and an excellent help desk.

Step 10: Have a flexible honoraria system

Over time, you will find that the response from specific specialties may go up or down. Therefore, you must have a system in place that allows you to systematically change honoraria to address response rate fluctuations.

Step 11: An excellent help desk

If a physician gets stuck in a survey or has not been paid their honoraria, they need a way to get help. They will get easily frustrated if they do not receive help quickly. A help desk that responds in real time is best. However, the minimum requirement is that all help-desk requests be cleared before the end of the workday.

Step 12: Monetize your panel

A health care company usually develops a panel to address a specific internal company need that is not related to providing a panel for health care marketing research. If the database is accomplishing the specific need, it is easy to lose sight of the value of the panel to data collection companies. Internally, some will express objections to opening this revenue source. You should work hard to overcome these objections. Let the naysayers know that because of the strong need of additional sample by data collection companies, they will likely collaborate with your company to address your objections and make it easy to obtain the additional revenue. Panel companies have set up systems that will allow your company to provide them sample without the need to provide the actual contact information of your panelists and the panel companies will make it easy to link your database to theirs. 

In addition, it does not take a sales effort to monetize your panel. Data collection companies will be eager to use your panel and will significantly reimburse you for the opportunity. Therefore, the barriers to entry are not large and the costs of development are small.

Strong need

The above 12 steps supply an outline for starting your own health care panel. If you have the proper contact database, it is not that difficult to turn it into a health care panel that can be used for internal purposes and to service the health care marketing research community. There is a strong need for more health care panels.

Over the last 20 years, I have developed two major health care panels but I have not done this on my own. I would like to dedicate this article to the late Stephen Gerzovich, who passed away in December, and also thank the following for all their help: Sal Brucculeri, Tony Burke, Hilary Fischer, Jason Freeman, Miriam Haynes, Matt Walmsley, Howard Ziment and the hundreds of colleagues who helped All Global (originally WebSurveyResearch) and SurveyHealthCare become such a success.