Online panels: still a valuable marketing tool?

25 Oct 2021

Globally and locally, online panels have taken off in a big way. Ahead of the curve, Forum24 was launched 10 years ago, and has since grown to include more than 38 000 active respondents, with an excellent spread across South Africa, spanning races and incomes.

However, this same period has been marked by rapid change, with one industry-shaking tech development after the next significantly impacting on research and raising questions around efficacy and methodology. So where do online panels stand now? And how does Forum24 measure up?

Rapid change requires faster results

From the beginning, online panels have offered many significant advantages over more traditional market research panels – the most notable of these being speed and cost. Given the rate at which everything changes these days, it is important for us to get insights out while they are still relevant and meaningful, so speed to market is critical. Online panels also require far fewer resources than traditional methods, and so cost less. (Media24 has been further able to capitalize on savings by bringing our Reader’s Choice surveys in-house. This not only drove revenue to our publications, but also reduced the cost of the research significantly, with much higher return on investment).

At present, Forum24 manages to turn around basic research studies within a week, and more complex studies within a few weeks. That’s a long way from the months that similar research conducted using traditional methods (via mail or in person, for example) used to take.

Not all online panels are created equal

Research methodologies continue to evolve at an astonishing pace. To remain valuable, online panels have to differentiate themselves through the quality and usefulness of the data that they offer.

For Forum24, our uniqueness lies in that we have gained respondents through the various Media24 titles – both in print and across our digital properties – thereby giving us an excellent spread across varied demographic groups. Our qualifying questions for our research panel allow us to know exactly who we are asking, which is most useful when you have your problem statement in front of you and you need to know the “what” and the “why”. This has served both Media24 and our clients very well.

Tackling duplication and ensuring independence

One critical challenge facing online panels is this: How do we ensure that each response comes from a unique user, rather than several responses all coming from one person looking to rack up incentives (or even the work of bots)? This can obviously seriously affect the quality of data and insights, and impair trust in the reliability and accuracy of results – a problem that echoes through many aspects of digital marketing.

Forum24 has broached this issue by instituting strict guidelines and measures to eliminate issues such as the duplication of accounts. In addition, we have run a number of tests within our own business to ensure the quality and authenticity of the data and the insights we return. (It’s worth noting that Media24 has a vested interest in our online panel getting this right, as we ourselves depend on these insights.)

Importantly, all of this is overseen by a highly experienced panel manager, who is not employed by Media24 but rather contracted to us, and can conduct research for other companies using our data within the limitations of our contract. Our panel manager is also SAMRA accredited (South African Marketing Research Association) and therefore under obligation to abide by a code of conduct that sets minimum acceptable standards for how research is conducted and used.

Media24 and Forum24: A symbiosis

From Media24’s perspective, having an in-house online panel brings the combined benefits of speedy insights and a more centralized integrated research platform, giving us valuable information at our fingertips – for example, in-depth insights into our readers and how they engage with our platforms. It also opens the door to consumer insights and general public opinion. This, together with our behind-the-scenes analytics, gives us a solid foundation to make good marketing and executive decisions.

In return, Media24’s print and digital platforms provide mountains of data daily, and by combining this with primary research, we can provide both our business – and our customers – with insights and data that support actionable strategies.

Putting the panel to work

In the last 18 months we have used these strengths to conduct over 40 different projects, ranging from consumer insights to retail surveys, Media24 title surveys and Covid studies, also extending our services to external companies in banking, telecommunications, insurance, medical and retail – and even two legal cases.

A highlight has been the four Covid studies that we completed in numerous categories, covering government, vaccinations, work from home, schooling, unrest, job losses, proudly South African support, and new energy efficiencies. These studies have not only driven editorial content in our daily papers, but have also fed into content solution strategies, benefitting our clients through the integrated solutions through which we offer them a combination of digital, print and television media.

Where to next?

Technology continues to evolve at lightning speed, and it can be hard to predict what the next big thing in research will be. However, as long as they can continue to provide speedy, accurate and useful insights, high-quality online panels have a place in the research mix.

As such, Forum24 continues to grow our panel of respondents and drive this both internally, as part of our larger data economy and data strategy – as well as externally, as a commercial offering within our integrated solution offering.