Integrated, aligned, seamless, efficient… I had heard all of these terms but did not fully realise what they meant or why they mattered so much until I built my own market research agency specialising in the build and management of customer panels.
Our unique selling point was in the talent and formidable experience of our team members; suffice to say, we neither owned nor developed any of the software required for such a service offering. Our approach, as with most new businesses, was to get the job done with whatever digital tools we could afford at the time with a view to future in-house ownership — to become more productive, or efficient, or to gain more control, or to add more value, or to realise long term cost savings.
The ‘Integrated’ Research Software Illusion
From the start, we did the best work we could for our clients and it was top quality, but in order to achieve this we spent an inordinate amount of time linking the disparate parts of the toolkit puzzle. We never sought out a complete panel management and research platform, if one even existed at that time — but rather used what was provided to us free-of-charge or at a very attractive cost, i.e. we combined various independent platform elements in order to create a complete research platform solution.
We outsourced our survey programming, and then took it in-house with one software provider. We later changed to an alternative survey software provider who allowed for more customisation, a key requirement of our developing client base. We outsourced the design and development of our customer panel websites but soon recognised that they were core to our solution and made the decision to bring them in-house. We hired dedicated web designers/developers and purchased the necessary development software. We chose to use another tool from a company very well known for their online focus group software at the time and we recruited panellists via the customer panels we managed or alternative external sources, i.e. access panels.
It was a software ‘botch’. I’m not sure anyone outside of our team would have understood it but we made it work, made being the operative word.
The DIY Research Client Development
As a full-service agency we delivered all of our research projects from start to finish (i.e., from design to written report) as well as the panel and panel management services. Our clients neither had, nor did they require access to our tools directly and in the early stages of business they were happy with this. As the years progressed however, things changed and we began receiving client side requests for DIY tool use — attempts to reduce their financial outlay and/or increase project speed.
In a couple of instances, our clients wanted to program their own research regularly, they didn’t want us involved at all, ever — a demand development we did not anticipate at the start. But instead of saying no, we chose to set them up as users within our various external research accounts. We did this very carefully by setting the proper permissions, but nonetheless, our accounts with these external providers were never meant or designed for extending out beyond our own enterprise. Essentially, we were now the go-between, nothing more, and yet would still be held responsible for the quality, up-time, ease of use, and many other facets of these external technologies by our clients.
Doing It All Again?
When I look back on how we operated, it has the appearance of madness! And still to this day, there are major customer panel platform providers who have not fully integrated their qual tools with their quant tools resulting in a disjointed and unprofessional experience for both panellists and client users of these platforms.
Choosing the Right Digital Research Provider
Based on my front line experience, I have constructed 6 top tips for choosing the right customer panel/insight community research platform provider:
If your overall purpose is to have a customer panel/insight community, then choose a platform which has been designed with this objective in mind. It must have a panel at its core. Everything should be built around this core panel and logically support this overarching endeavour.
2. Fully Integrated
Having a wide breadth of research tools fully integrated, easily accessible and completely aligned within one platform will save you time and money. Your data will benefit from greater security and you will have the qual and quant functionality to address every plausible research initiative at speed.
3. Flexible Operation
You should be able to use whichever research tools you want, when you want and pay-as-you-go. You should not be tied in unless you choose to be. If you do use particular tools regularly, keep an eye out for a provider with a licensing option allowing you to benefit from economies of scale. You should also be able to purchase research services on an ad hoc basis including partial support if appropriate (e.g., design only, or moderation only, etc.). Not only can these services fullfil a skills gap, they can also come in really handy during periods of growth.
4. Research Expertise
For a number of reasons I advise choosing a platform provider designed and developed by an operational research agency. Firstly, it guarantees that the research tools that you are buying are under the constant scrutiny of their in-house researchers. Secondly, it means that the research support that you may need from time to time (or all of the time) is pre-qualified, easily accessible and yes, ‘seamless’ in its commission. No new relationships required. No confusion. No delays.
5. Comparison Criteria
If you only focus on the features of one tool, you risk comparing providers based on the wrong criteria. Survey tools are the best example, as they are the most advanced — several providers have been developing theirs for close to 20 years and their feature lists are impressive. There are 2 key considerations here: 1. Do you need all of these features? 2. Are there features or tools that you do need that are not present? A comprehensive fully integrated panel/community solution goes way beyond that of a survey platform and the features and tools required for success are different. Be mindful of your overall research objectives and related methodologies when making your provider comparison.
6. Representative Rapport
Do not settle for a sales/account representative who has relatively little or no experience in research, or with whom you have no rapport. Your connection is so important, well beyond the signed contract. The right account representative will oversee your relationship in its entirety; they will understand your challenges and ensure the best outcome. You should feel confident in turning to them at any time for support, advice, and a positive and enjoyable experience always.