Going right to the source

Editor's note: Raeann Bilow is content marketing architect and Sean Campbell is CEO of marketing research firm Cascade Insights. They can be reached at raeann.bilow@cascadeinsights.com and sean@cascadeinsights.com, respectively.

The expert network industry is booming. Currently, expert networks generate more than $1.9 billion in revenue in aggregate. There are also more than 100 expert networks in operation, with new entrants popping up regularly, and the space is projected to grow substantially, following a year-on-year growth rate of greater than 20% in 2021. 

B2B companies that utilize expert networks to recruit participants for research studies see substantial benefits, particularly in the quality of market research respondents. Specifically, these organizations can quickly interact with niche participants who have the exact job title, work history and area of expertise that is needed for a particular B2B study.

However, expert networks are a fast-moving new industry that comes with both risks and rewards. To help weigh the pros and cons, we’ve outlined some of the potential benefits B2B companies could gain – or what risks they might face – by working with expert networks.

Share their expertise

What is an expert network? Expert networks connect clients with paid experts who share their industry or job role-related expertise. They facilitate the matching of expert respondents to a researcher’s interest area. They also schedule interviews, create processes to ensure that any information exchange is compliant and handle respondent incentives.

While expert networks have been with us for some time, at least since the launch of Gerson Lehrman Group’s offerings in 1999, the rapid rise of LinkedIn and other online resources that expert networks can access has fueled the recent boom. Platforms such as LinkedIn have nearly 850 million users and tend to expand rapidly due to network effects. Thus, expert networks can quickly mine billions of pieces of data focused on career histories, job responsibilities and job titles across a wide range of industries and geographic locations.

Expert networks are equally as beneficial for the participants. Participating in an expert network has become a legitimate side job for C-level executives, investors, consultants, business decision-makers and other professionals.

Panel firms have historically been the primary source of participants for market research organizations. Panel providers manage a private database of potential respondents that they can match up with different market research studies. Based on the information that the likely respondents have provided about themselves, panel providers can then source participants for a wide range of studies.

Unfortunately, in recent years, panel firms have struggled to provide large numbers of quality respondents for B2B research studies. One reason for this struggle is simply how data is retrieved about participants and how up-to-date this information is. Storing data about potential research participants in a panel provider’s proprietary database vs. retrieving information about these participants from a “live” database such as LinkedIn is very different.

For example, consider Brian, who, at 38 years old, was a senior software engineer at Microsoft focusing on data center initiatives. At 39, however, he became a CTO at a tech startup focused on biotech. While 38-year-old Brian may have been a great fit for one B2B quant study, 39-year-old Brian would be a fit for a completely different B2B study.

Importantly, at the moment Brian makes this shift, he is unlikely to update any of the data panel providers have stored about him. Plus, the surveys panel firms send out to “update your data” have notoriously low response rates. Yet, Brian is extremely likely to update his LinkedIn profile shortly after making his career move, something an expert network is able to pick up on quite quickly, given the focus expert networks have on using “live” databases vs. more static proprietary ones. 

All the while, Brian’s personal preferences as a consumer haven’t changed much from one year to the next. He may care about Formula 1 racing just as much as he did before he made his career switch or he may like pasta just as much. This is why panel providers may still be valuable today for companies with a B2C focus or for studies that can target a broad audience group. However, when a study calls for a more focused and narrow participant group like B2B research often requires, panel providers may come up short.

Let’s look at some of the risks and rewards of using expert networks.

Reward #1: Quality of respondents 

Perhaps the biggest reward of using expert networks is the quality of respondents they yield. Expert networks validate via LinkedIn or another public source that the respondents are who they say they are. This includes validating up-to-date information on a potential market research participant's job title, past job history and their broad area of expertise.

While expert networks take more of a hands-on approach, panel providers leverage an internal database or those offered by third parties to get the quickest response at the lowest cost. Not only does this require a market research firm to expend additional resources in verifying their participant pool, but it can lead to a study that an organization may struggle to trust.

Risk #1: Cost

Expert networks tend to cost about double what panel firms do on a per-respondent basis. This extra cost should be factored in when scoping a research effort so an early decision can be made as to whether a study should be downsized or whether the project’s budget should be increased.

The higher cost of working with expert networks can be especially impactful for quantitative studies, which require more respondents than qualitative studies. For example, running a B2B tracking study of n=1,000 participants for each quarter over the course of a few years would require a company to spend tens of thousands of extra dollars to get the same number of respondents as they previously received from a panel firm. Or, an organization would need to adjust the tracker’s sample size to keep project costs the same. A change of this magnitude would then have to be explained to key stakeholders and teams inside the company, some of whom may tie programs, initiatives or even team or individual bonuses to the tracking data provided by the study. 

Reward #2: Niche respondents 

B2B companies typically target a more tightly scoped audience than B2C counterparts. For example, recruiting a data scientist who works in health care with three years of machine learning experience is going to be more difficult than identifying a 50-year-old who likes baseball for a consumer study.

However, modern-day expert networks are well-equipped to recruit these types of niche B2B respondents. Since they have access to more up-to-date information, including a potential participant’s work history, experience with certain verticals and technologies, etc., they can zero in on niche respondents. 

Risk #2: Contract issues

Beyond providing insights to the organization as a whole, market research teams also act as a source of best-practice information on research initiatives. This includes a focus on compliance. Overall, centralized research teams ensure that all research partnerships with sample suppliers are established on solid principles and on legal conditions that make sense for the organization.

Unfortunately, these teams need to watch out for a bit of a poison pill that exists in a number of the contracts that expert networks ask their clients to sign. The most concerning proviso is a consistent one that frequently states that an expert network’s clients cannot contact a participant for future research initiatives unless they go through that same expert network – again and again – to source a given individual. 

This type of legal agreement can create a number of unintended consequences for any organization, particularly for large enterprise organizations and their market research teams. For example, a large organization may have a variety of rogue product managers or marketers who directly engage with a wide range of expert network providers. A scenario such as this makes it impossible to know if research participants have been sourced – time and again – from the same expert network or multiple. To mitigate this risk, market research teams should work to remove these types of clauses from the contracts they sign with expert network providers. Or at a minimum recognize how these clauses might interact across the contracts that the organization signs.

Reward #3: Up-to-date respondents

Whether it’s part of the Great Resignation, the Big Quit, the Great Reshuffle or some other factor, more and more people are changing jobs or occupations or dropping out of the workforce entirely. Those in new positions may have new responsibilities and may not even be in the same sector as before. If they were previously a key decision-maker, are they still making the buying decisions now? Or if they were working for an enterprise company yesterday, are they leading a startup today?

This amount of job churn has made it nearly impossible for panel providers who focus on B2B audiences to keep their databases up to date. Remember Brian? In this scenario, an expert network already knows of the job change Brian has made, maybe only hours or days after he starts in his new role. By contrast, organizations that use panel providers typically only know this information after a respondent has failed a screener. This puts the onus on the end client to ultimately validate whether a panel provider has provided a solid respondent.

Risk #3: Sticking with just one expert network 

It can be risky to utilize only one expert network to try to meet all of your research needs across different studies. Since expert networks will often each have their own niches that they specialize in, it’s important to keep a wide range of different providers at hand. 

For example, here is just a bit of a random sample of some popular expert networks and their specialization:

IvyExec – connects senior-level professionals with paid research engagements for research companies, consulting firms and businesses. It also offers executive job opportunities, career advice and more for business leaders.

Inex One – provides infrastructure that stores all confidential expert calls or content shared by SMEs, while also managing multiple experts and monitoring a company’s expenditure for expert calls. Its clients include consulting firms, private equity firms, hedge funds and asset managers, and corporations.

CleverX – utilizes programming to help look for the right SME based on input business or project keywords. Its network of experts includes business consultants from companies like Tesla, Google, Forbes, Ford, Apple, Shell, Coca-Cola, Walmart and more.   

Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG) – connects business clients with insights from its network of approximately 1 million experts to provide financial information and advice for investors and consultants. GLG's clients include strategy consulting corporations, hedge funds, private equity firms, professional service firms and non-profits.

NewtonX – utilizes an AI-based search tool that transforms inputs into database queries with more than 40 fields. It collects and maintains a marketplace of experts for industries like advertising, marketing, health care, HR, manufacturing, real estate and more.

Third Bridge – provides investment insights and professional consultation or services, with a library of high-quality content for business, investments and consulting purposes. 

Guidepoint – connects clients to professional advisors who can guide a one-time project of business expansion or provide expert suggestions via one-on-one interviews. 

AlphaSights – offers industry experts for business data analytics, insights, surveys and personal experiences. Suitable for investment bankers, private investment firms, mutual funds, management consulting, corporations and non-government organizations.

Coleman Research – mainly used by business management consultancies and investment firms. Services include one-on-one consultations, quick polls and expert surveys.  

Capvision – services large and prominent financial institutions, consulting firms and global corporations. Can provide insight into offshore manufacturing units, business expansion, investment decisions or fund management.

Reward #4: Quicker insights

It’s a relatively standard process for expert networks to require their potential participants to confirm their identity through their company e-mail. This ensures that only the right respondents are recruited for the study the first time around.

Panel firms, on the other hand, will often unknowingly recruit respondents who are no longer a good fit for the study. Many times this is caught in the screening process; sometimes, it may even sneak past any quality checks in place. In this case, companies have to stop and disqualify a large percentage of the respondents before going back and attempting to fill the survey again, adding to the overall timeline of the project.

Risk #4: Insider trading and exposing trade secrets

Interviewees of expert network participants must be very careful not to elicit information that legally should not be disclosed. For example, participants may accidentally share confidential and detailed pricing information, a product roadmap or other information that could flag an insider trading or trade-secret violation. The interviewer at the receiving end of that information may not be thinking of, or even fully understand, the ramifications of that information having been disclosed. This potentially puts the organization they work for at legal risk.

This issue tends to be particularly prevalent if the person conducting the research is not a market researcher by trade. Rather, they may be a member of another team, like product development or marketing. 

For example, consider a product manager who wants to speak to someone who used to work with a competing organization. This product manager wants to understand how well their features are positioned compared to competing products. The participant then starts to share details about the product and its capabilities, including features that are not yet released or even publicly announced. Neither side may realize just how sensitive that information exchange may be at the time or fully grasp the implications of it being revealed. 

Given risks such as these, market research teams should put appropriate compliance checks in place, so direct interactions between company employees and expert network participants are appropriately monitored.

Reward: #5: Trust, but verify

A famous Russian proverb states, “Doveryai, no proveryai,” which translates to “Trust, but verify.” This truism can be easily applied to any B2B market research study, as all market researchers should double-check, if not triple-check, the quality of every market research respondent.

In essence, when it comes to B2B research, the results of a study are only as good as its participants. That’s why it’s crucial to have full transparency on who exactly is involved in your research project from the start. Only when this is the case is it safe to share conclusions and recommendations with a broader set of stakeholders and decision-makers inside the company.

Expert networks can provide this transparency by offering the ability to contact respondents to confirm their identity or even follow up on a question. For example, there may be instances where a group of respondents answers a question in a way the company was not expecting. If the survey had been distributed via a panel provider, the company would have been stuck with the confusion of these responses, unsure if they could truly trust what the results say. Expert networks, however, provide the ability to reach back out to those respondents to get a clear and complete explanation as to why they chose that response. 

Risk #5: Decreased quant study size

Since sourcing participants through an expert network costs more than through a panel provider, companies utilizing expert networks will have to make a choice: increase the budget for the study or reduce the size of the study. Of course, the third alternative is even less palatable: choose to keep costs low and risk that some or perhaps all of the sample leveraged for the study is invalid.

This pain is particularly acute for quantitative studies, simply due to the larger number of respondents required to complete these studies. As a result, companies will need to decide which is more important: the quantity of respondents or the quality of respondents. 

Enlighten any study

The Bahema people who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo have a saying, “Wisdom is like fire; people take it from others.” Expert networks provide this type of fire – a fire that can enlighten any study with well-chosen participants. 

Yet, as previously discussed, this enlightenment does come with risks. Many of these risks are based on the fact that the expert network landscape is growing rapidly and this wildfire needs to be vigilantly monitored.

Fortunately, this is a challenge that market research teams are well adapted to address. By leveraging what might be years or even decades of experience in dealing with sample providers, these teams can help organizations maximize the light that expert networks provide. Yet, at the same time, these teams can minimize the risk of getting burned by an expert network provider who might be trying to “move fast and break things.”