Panel Aggregation: The DARK side of the online panel business!!

online panelsIn recent times I have seen mushrooming of the ‘GLOBAL PANEL COMPANIES’ which are nothing more than 2-3 person team with a shabbily accumulated vendor list and no credential to boast about. With changing times it becomes imperative to understand what really panel aggregation is and how some of these vendors are RUINING your research studies. I want to CATEGORICALLY state that panel aggregation business soon might become EXTINCT. The article illustrates why you should have a proprietary panel and NOT be just a panel aggregator.

REASON 1: WE ARE A ONE STOP SHOP SOLUTION!!!

It is the first argument any panel aggregator will give to you i.e. we REALLY help clients save their time by managing their multi country studies so that they can concentrate on their primary focus which is doing RESEARCH.

Well I don’t agree to the statement – suppose the CLIENT is charged USD 10,000 per project which includes 20% markup which the panel aggregator has put i.e. the client is shelving out USD 2000 as a CONVENIENCE FEES – now if the CLIENT conducts 20 such studies in a month it totals USD 40,000 as the ONE STOP SHOP SOLUTION fees they are shelving out – for this amount of money I can probably hire a C-LEVEL executive to do vendor management for my company.

When you are outsourcing online fieldwork to a pure panel aggregator your research project quality is at maximum risk – as you might probably be sure about the credential of the aggregator but what about the sub-vendors he is using to complete your studies. What kind of quality control a panel aggregator would have on someone else panels??? ASK YOURSELF!!!

One of the biggest problem researchers now a day face is that their clients complain of the lack of value proposition in their research findings – with a dubious data I believe research companies are going to face even more problems convincing their clients about increasing research budgets.

For a researcher DATA is everything as it determines whether the findings will be accurate or not. Data collection is such an integral part of a research project that it becomes imperative to ensure it is of utmost quality. The reason companies like SSI, Research Now, Toluna etc. have such a high client satisfaction level is that they have a very tight control over the panelist quality.

I still remember when I was working with Greenfield Online (now part of Toluna) – as a PM if I required outside sample for my projects (which can be taken only from pre-approved vendors)– I had to take written permission of the Senior Vice President of Operations with proper explanation that why I am not being able to complete the study with proprietary panels – also I would have to ensure that the vendor I am using is providing me utmost quality – I mean it was so strict that any project manager used to have sleepless nights if they have to outsource sample work to 3rd parties.

Companies which are in this business for a long haul are ALWAYS going to create proprietary panels. It is a costly affair to build and manage online panels – therefore a company which believes in giving you TRUE VALUE will always create an active panel community. Those which are in the business to get some QUICK MONEY will ONLY provide you one stop shop solution!!!!!

REASON 2: WE ARE ABLE TO GIVE GOOD DISCOUNTS TO OUR CLIENTS!!!

One of the BIGGEST arguments provided by pure panel aggregators is – as we outsource so many projects to these sub-vendors we are able to extract a good discount from them. First of all I am not standing in a SUPER MARKET buying vegetables – I AM DOING RESEARCH!!! I have never been comfortable with companies in this business telling me about discounts – what I really want to hear is how they are ensuring quality data.

What basically aggregators are doing is that they are cashing on the fact that the clients don’t know the local vendor who is actually supplying the samples. Few years back I remember I had few good Japanese sample providers – today all of them are directly supplying the samples to the clients and giving better discount then what I was giving. The simple fact is as the market is becoming more mature the REAL sample suppliers in the local markets are directly contacting the clients. So if I am a panel aggregator I might have made money on the client’s ignorance previously but what now – in all probabilities I would search for a CHEAPER sample supplier which undoubtedly would be of dubious quality.

There are lots of industries which do aggregation but the model is entirely different for e.g. travel agents do bulk purchase of airline tickets or hotel bookings and then extract a huge discount from the airliners or the hotels – for whom it is a good bargain as they are able to sell bulk bookings. Then the travel agents pass on some of the benefits to the customers. So it is cheaper to buy ticket from an agent than an airliner or hotel directly.

This is NOT what panel aggregators do – they don’t do any kind of bulk purchase of samples. They merely make money on client’s ignorance of the local suppliers.

Another example would be automobile industry – Tata Motors for e.g. uses engines from Cummins but they invest heavily in Cummins R&D department to help ensure that Cummins is able to come out with superior quality engines. Ask yourself are the pure panel aggregators INVESTING in their sub-vendors in terms of training and quality control – I believe the answer to it is a BIG NO!!!!!!

Today in our industry everyone talks about CHEAP, COST EFFICIENT, DISCOUNTS – what we should really talk about is – VALUE PROPOSITION!!

REASON 3: WE PROVIDE SAMPLE ALL ACROSS THE GLOBE!!

There are so many upcoming panel companies especially in India making this preposterous claim – “WE ARE GLOBAL PANEL PROVIDER”. The clients don’t even need to make a back check on their credibility – simply visit their website which in all cases would be shabbily formatted with no information what so ever about the owners of the company or their credentials. Have you ever been to SSI or Research Now website – these companies have such detailed information on their website that it would probably take few days to go through them all!!

The biggest problem about panel aggregation is that 90% of them would not even admit that they are doing it. This creates problems for even genuine proprietary panel providers as they have to work harder to establish credentials in this scam market!!

As this industry poses a low entry barrier many misguided people are considering it a safe haven to make a few quick bucks. It is such a wrong trend that would ultimately create problems for all players involved. Today I would like to take this opportunity to ask market researchers what they are doing on their end to ensure that the online fieldwork being conducted as per MR guidelines – I have personally seen this trend where in some cases being CHEAP gets you business but ultimately the research project will suffer and as the end client doesn’t get desired insights they would not increase the market research budget.

It is a vicious cycle – all researchers should think multiple times before going for cost efficiency which inadvertently leads to their clients looking for a cost efficient research company. Let your panel vendor create value for you which in turn would result in value for the end client – all parties involved i.e. panel supplier – market researcher – end client would benefit. If you infuse “cheap” concept in the system always remember you too are part of the system so you would also not get your dues!!

REASON 4: THE ECOSYSTEM WOULD ULTIMATELY COLLAPSE!!

How much does it takes now days to open a panel company – I would say not more than USD 1000 in India. What you need is a website and few vendor emails Id and VIOLA!!! You can now claim to provide panels globally!!!

The problem of so called panel aggregation has reached mammoth proportions with young inexperienced people jumping into the fray. There are people in this business now days that have got NO BACKGROUND in online panels. It is creating a fish market where clients are confused as to whom to believe or not.

Ultimately the system would collapse and those with good quality proprietary panels would survive these turbulent times. I humbly request if you want to survive in this business – CREATE YOUR OWN PANELS! On which you have a tight quality control.

PS: In case you are doing business with an Indian Online Panel company at least ensure that they are a registered company. You can check this by visiting the following Indian Government Website – CLICK HERE and check for yourself whether the panel supplier is registered or not.

Now you have a choice. You can comment, share, or implement. I prefer if you implement, but I’ll appreciate all three – Akshay Kanyal

Comments

  1. The only aggregator I know of is CINT AB, and they are fairly decent in my experience (although I get the feeling their staff don’t have a research background). You make it seem as the world is full of these companies — I have never found any others? Could you list examples please?

    • I wish I could state few names but most of them even deny the fact that they aggregate panels!! Apart from few biggies like SSI, TOLUNA, USAMP, RESEARCH NOW and good local players like AIP, BORDERLESS ACCESS, GMO, RESEARCH PANEL ASIA, PULSE GROUP and few others…. mostly companies aggregate.

      • There are a lot of small companies that only aggregate, but I know some of the “biggies” and “good local players” in fact aggregate to some extent as well because my company sells to them. I understand the larger players have sizable panels, but they do some aggregation as well.

        I do agree with the gist of your article that the online panel business is getting crowded with small companies that are only broker sample.

        One issue that you did not call out in your article that is behind much of the aggregation is the use of routing. There is an increasing intersection between the world of CPA networks and online market research. CPA meaning cost per action, in this case the action is a completed survey. I think all of the major sample players you mentioned tap into “real time” or “river” sampling to some extent either directly or indirectly. Thus they lose some control of the sample sources because routing has become very sophisticated and layered.

        What do you think about routing and pervasive use of CPA networks in online MR?

        • @Rob – appreciate your feedback – if you ask my opinion the only issue I have for panel aggregation is that it isn’t adding any VALUE in the system. Many players are popping up just to make a few quick bucks before vanishing – they aren’t putting back any money in the system.

          Another rampant problem which probably I haven’t mentioned is the non-payment of incentives. Some (but a growing number) players are just doing ’email blast’ under the name of having a proprietary panel for e.g. if they require 200 completes they buy or source a database of email IDs and send mass mails to them. Once they get requisite number of completes they never distribute incentives and move on to the next database. Now these 200 persons who have taken time off to complete the survey would not join again even a genuine panel company.

          Coming to the question of ‘river sampling’ or CPA networks – there is a lot of grey area here – I had myself utilized CPA networks to build proprietary panels and I have realized that apart from good web properties most of these sources are bad pool of respondents. For e.g. I have found out Yahoo to be a very good source of recruiting respondents with high quality engaged respondents same with MSN – but you would have to be really judicious when sourcing some other CPA networks. We cannot ignore the fact that there is a huge base of potential respondents on internet who probably aren’t interested in joining a panel as per say and would prefer giving surveys ‘on the fly’. Now as these respondents are directly send across to a LIVE surveys, panel companies have to be extra cautious about the screener questions put in place – to avoid slippage. I would personally recommend clients get actively involved in this process.

          In the coming days the biggest challenge would be to maintain a healthy and engaged panel base. With rising cost of such a maintenance and with clients pushing for a better deal I believe panel companies with substantial investment in technology and those providing a unique value proposition would survive and the rest will perish!

          • By “non payment of incentives”, do you mean that an incentive was promised in the invite and then not paid? That is plain dishonest. But I am not sure, you could mean that email blasts are done where no incentive is offered. There is a SPAM issue with email blasts, but it is a separate issue if no incentive is offered, then of course no incentive is paid.

            There are a host of issues as the online sample industry evolves. I think some of these issue will be discussed at the upcoming CASRO conference next week in Las Vegas.

          • yes Rob by “non payment of incentives” I meant that an incentive was promised but nothing was paid!! and I know couple of companies doing that. Also even in good companies sometimes due to mismanagement of incentive payouts the incentives could not be delivered. I think the best way is to have a robust panel management system and the clients should also work with panel companies who are registered with ESOMAR or CASRO so strict guidelines can be implemented.

  2. I wanted to respond to the comment made by Jdarren and a more general point here, which I think is being missed. I think this article is really talking about brokering, which Cint isn’t by any means. We are also not an access panel company. Far from it. We do aggregate samples at a project level – if our clients wish – but Cint adds tremendous value in almost all aspects of the online sample value chain. Our ability to multi-source supply creation, automate quality standards that are unmatched in other models, and solve the current concern over long-term panel sustainability positions Cint as an evolution to the typical online sampling models seen in years gone by.

    Our marketplace platform provides automated solutions that enables panel management, targeted invitations to millions of global respondents, competitive marketplace for buyers and sellers of online sample, integration capability for survey software tools and third party panel systems via APIs, advanced profiling, respondent deduplication and many other quality metrics, all within a transparent user-interface that our clients can have access to if they wish (seelf-service / DIY channel) but that we offer up anyway as part of our managed services model when bidding out jobs.

    I don’t see any broker even doing part of this and as others have commented here, sample aggregation is actually common amongst the majority of companies providing access to respondents. Many client jobs dictate by default due to their size (trackers, large ad-hocs) that sample blending from a multitude of sources is required to deliver the project and if done in a controlled, planned, sample-framed way with de-duplication wraped in then there is generally little or no risk to the quality of the data output.

    So I think it is important to understand and differentiate between brokering and blending and pure broker models and firms who are investing millions into technology innovation and building out unique platforms like we have at Cint.

  3. Everyone aggregates! SSI, ResearchNow — they all do it. When they can’t fill a study with their own panel, they reach out to partners. Call it what you want but this is aggregating.

    When you conduct a physician study with any of the major players, chances are they are connecting with World One, Epocrates or Dr. Directory. This is aggregating — they are bringing in another provider.

    You do make a good point about the quality of some of these companies. It’s up to project managers to vet out their sample providers and do their due diligence. Ask your sample vendor about their partners — make sure they are credible and have solid practices. Make sure you get the names of the partners and do your own research.

    From my perspective, the Dark Side is more the use or abuse of River Sample — this is truly an area that needs to be managed.