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Internet research - sample sources and recruitment

Sources for samples for online market research The main sources for online samples are either specialist panel providers, or internal contact lists with emails, or possibly mobile numbers for text or messaging. Panel providers are excellent for broad scale consumer campaigns, and can target down to some specialist subgroups and geographies.

For specialist businesses and organisations, panel providers might not have enough contacts on their lists, particularly for business-to-business markets, which leaves internal lists or telephone-based contacts to find contacts as the only options.

Using internal lists does need control. Respondents have rights to privacy and data protection, and overcontacting can look like spamming which can erode customer trust.

Email lists and social media

For online surveys, a core challenge is recruiting people to take part. Recruitment seems simple - get a list of emails and mail everyone, or spread a message through social media networks.

Unfortunately, such approaches can be considered spamming which can lead to black-lists and blocks and unhappy customers. With GDPR, great care needs to be made to ensure that the appropriate levels of consent have been made to avoid falling foul of data protection legislation. Bought-in lists have to be treated with a suitable level of care and due diligence before they can be used.

Increasingly businesses are building their own newsletter lists (using tools such as Mailchimp) to try to make better connection with website visitors, and to build lists for marketing purposes.

If there is a usable list, a central consideration is response rates - that is how many invites out turn into completed responses. Typically for general purpose email lists, the response rate is very low - typically less than 0.5%. Consequently for each 100 completes required, 20,000 (ie 100/0.5%) invites would need to be sent out. Where response rates are particularly low, this can call into question the representativeness of the responses.

For internal lists, response rates can be much higher - to 20% or more, depending on the strength of the relationship between the customer and the supplier. Most companies do some form of online marketing and will have some measures of open-rate and reply rate to generic marketing communication that can be used to estimate a research response rate.

A factor with internal lists is that response rates will drop if individuals are sent too many invites in a short time. With internal lists, management systems are required to ensure that over-contacting is avoided particularly for customers who are more important to the business. As the need for managing recruitment, retention and controlling contacts made becomes more important, businesses often turn towards building private online communities (eg market research online communities), of willing research participants which come with tools to manage contacts, content and incentives.


Online panels

For most consumer-facing business, most recruitment to surveys is conducted via online market research panels. Panel providers hold databases of several million people who have opted in to take part in research for a level of incentives, and so can quickly contact willing participants.

Panel providers can provide a full questionnaire fielding service, sometimes with DIY survey design tools. These allow internal specialists to run surveys without the need to involve an external agency, for those who know how to create a questionnaire that will get the results required.

For those less specialist in research, our research consultants work to understand the business issues and research needs and can link our advanced survey tools to use the panel-provided respondents.


Telephone recruitment

For business-to-business markets where panels and lists of individuals are unavailable, older style methods need to be used. In these cases, telephone recruitment and interviewing can work from a master list of businesses, to navigate through switchboards to the right contact in order to achieve an interview.

Telephone recruitment takes time and money, but can be laser-targeted to the right contact points in otherwise hard to reach markets. Instead, of going to an online survey, it may be more straightforward to recruit and then complete a plain CATI telephone interview.

However, for projects with a visual component (eg showing prompt material), recruit-to-web, or web-assisted telephone interviewing (WATI) where the telephone interviewer can show respondents content via a web-link are also suitable alternatives.


Snowballing and free-finding

Free-finding contacts for online research is typically hard. However, special interest or community groups (eg sports players via a sports association) can be contacted by a snow-ball approach. In a snowball, a small number of active people are invited and asked to pass details of the survey on to their contacts. We have used this very effectively in the sports arena, using a network of participants and volunteers to pass the survey details around to their friends and other participants, eventually reaching a sample size of around 800.



An additional factor which needs to be considered is that you may have to incentivise people to participate. Online panels include incentive elements in their costs.

For email lists, free prize draws are very common. For internal online communities often use a points system allocating points to those that take part in the research which can be exchanged for products later.


Survey quality

Naturally, once recruited, information needs to be collected and survey design should be an important consideration. Once recruited, the aim is to get as many completes as possible. There will be a drop out rate from those starting the survey as they go through the questionnaire, consequently getting the survey design to a high quality will improve the overall response rate. In addition, a customers' experience of the survey itself will also leave an impression of the commissioning business and how much attention it applies to customer needs.


For help and advice on carrying out on-line research projects contact

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