Private Online Research Panels

Private Online Panels Versus Online Communities

Private online panels, or communities, are typically groups of customers (or consumers) who are willing to participate in surveys, focus groups, and other types of research.

The terms “panel” and “community” are often used interchangeably, but we think of them as being quite different.

Private online panels: Generally, a private panel is made up of thousands of customers (or consumers) and is used primarily for surveys, focus groups, and other types of research projects. A private panel tends to have a long life; it can be operated for many years if new panelists are recruited on a regular basis. It is important that panel members are surveyed often enough (usually, six or more times per year) to keep them involved and interested in the panel. At the same time, too frequent use of panelists must be avoided because of learning and conditioning risks (that is, the panelists might become less representative over time because they learn too much about your company and your brands).

Private online communities: Communities are typically smaller than panels (hundreds of participants instead of thousands) and are often organized for a specific purpose and for a limited time. Communities can be surveyed and/or used for online qualitative research, although we like to think of all community-based data as qualitative or directional. Community participants tend to be used frequently (over and over again), so participant conditioning becomes a risk over time. Communities are so small that samples cannot be balanced as they might be in a private panel survey. Communities can also be used for nonresearch purposes, such as new product ideation.

The primary advantages of a company having its own private panel (or community) are reduced costs and, perhaps, more rapid study execution. The cost of a typical survey is reduced 25% to 35% by a private panel.

Common Uses of Private Online Panels

Since private panels tend to be made up primarily of customers (i.e., they are more likely to join your private panel than noncustomers), this tends to restrict “private panel” research studies to those that are appropriate for customers:

Quantitative Studies

  • Product usage studies among customers
  • Customer preferences for new package designs
  • Customer reactions to proposed advertising
  • Customer taste testing or customer reactions to products
  • Screening of promotion ideas among customers
  • Testing names of line extensions
  • Customer screening of new product concepts
  • Testing website videos

Qualitative Studies

  • Online focus groups
  • Online depth interviews
  • Mobile ethnography
  • Online forums
  • In-the-Moment qualitative

Reasons to Outsource Panel Management

Most corporations do not have the internal staff, systems, legal safeguards, and resources required to create, host, manage, and operate a private panel. For example, if the private panel has some European participants, then the GDPR between the U.S. and the European Union comes into play (it governs the transfer of personal data from Europe to the U.S.). Digital fingerprinting of respondents’ computers is essential to prevent cheating, yet this technology is generally too expensive for an individual company to buy. If the private panelists get upset for any reason and file “spamming” complaints, the corporate website might get blocked by some Internet Service Providers (if the website is hosted on corporate computers).

It is usually safer to host surveys and the panel database at a remote hosting facility so that corporate computers are not exposed to potential hackers or viruses. Also, whoever operates the private panel must answer emails, phone calls, and letters, as well as clean and update the database of panelists on a regular basis. If a corporation promises accessibility, then its surveys must be accessible. If surveys are not accessible, the company can be exposed to considerable legal and financial risks. A final reason to outsource private panel management and operation is to free up a company’s internal staff to be internal marketing consultants instead of research technicians.

Setting Up Your Private Panel

If you think a private panel might be appropriate for your brand or your company, please contact Jerry W. Thomas, Chief Executive Officer, by emailing him at, or by calling 1-800-ANALYSIS (262-5974) or 1-817-640-6166.