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Why Online Marketplaces Are the Future of Qualitative Market Research

Online marketplaces can become an important source of sample for qual research.

Editor’s Intro: Much handwringing has taken place in recent years about the state of sample for both Quant and Qual research. Clearly, fresh ideas are needed.  This article provides an interesting POV on an alternative for qual research sample, based on the kinds of online marketplaces that so many of us have gotten used to for travel (Airbnb) and transport (Uber and Lyft).

The ability to consistently source high-quality respondents is a perennial problem in qualitative user and market research. One doesn’t have to look any further than the latest GRIT report to find evidence of this: “A plurality” of insights buyers, insights suppliers, and sample providers now believe that “sample quality is getting worse.”

Many organizations and researchers have long realized this, which is why it has become common for them to produce and manage their own proprietary lists of quality respondents. Privately maintained, manually updated, and jealously guarded, having your own list of vetted, qualified research participants is now often considered to be a distinct competitive advantage. In reality, however, this approach actually limits access to large pools of candidates by encouraging competition among vendors and producing asymmetrical lists of respondents, making it more difficult to conduct quality qualitative research.

Instead, by giving researchers a faster, more reliable, and more cost-effective way to source respondents for qualitative studies, we believe online marketplaces represent the future of the industry.

Why marketplaces?

In many industries, online marketplaces are old news. Airbnb has used them to transform the accommodation industry, while Uber and Lyft are utilizing the marketplace model to upend transportation. In the process, these companies have generated billions of dollars and have created millions of new jobs — making us rethink how these industries can function.

The success of online marketplaces can be traced back to three core benefits:

1. Speed: Transactions happen much faster in marketplaces compared to traditionally structured businesses. Users can instantly view a product or service, contact the provider, conduct any necessary communication, and complete the purchase, all in a single place. Unnecessary middlemen are eliminated and the entire process is streamlined.

2. Quality: By connecting buyers and sellers more directly, marketplaces introduce a greater amount of transparency, which improves overall quality. They do this by eliminating any potential bias a recruiter may introduce, as well as with reviews, which filter out bad actors. Marketplaces also let researchers select participants themselves, helping ensure they choose the best candidates for them.

3. Cost: With the ability to access a global base of users, marketplaces attract more competition and bring down costs. By relying more on technology as opposed to manual labor, they are also able to operate with a much lower overhead, helping further lower costs.

All this means online marketplaces can often transform staid industries and produce better quality products faster and cheaper than before.

Why aren’t there marketplaces for research?

Given its success, it’s reasonable to wonder why the marketplace model has not been more widely applied to the worlds of qualitative user and market research. Our research found three distinct reasons for this:

1. The amount of time, money, and effort researchers have put into building out their own personal lists of respondents has made it difficult for them to embrace a more open and democratic model. They believe their lists give them an advantage over their competitors, and are simply unwilling to share access to them.

2. Many researchers use heavily fragmented and decentralized lists of respondents. This fragmentation may be due to form (e.g., multiple lists of respondents spread across different spreadsheets), location (e.g., respondent lists located on different computers across the world), or even content (e.g., heavily niche respondent lists).

3. Due to the many types of research participant needed, it is simply hard to create a usable marketplace. For one to be truly successful, it needs to have access to everyone. Although marketplaces that specialize in one particular type of participant could work in theory (e.g., a marketplace specifically for doctors or designers), they will have a difficult time getting enough momentum to become viable.

These factors have made the adoption of marketplaces for qualitative respondents seem unfeasible. However, we believe this assumption to be false.

Why marketplaces work for qualitative research

Online marketplaces now represent a huge opportunity for the research industry. This is because they can pull together fragmented lists of respondents, give researchers access to a much broader array of potential participants, and remove traditional barriers researchers and non-researchers alike often face when sourcing for their projects. What’s more, today’s technology now makes it possible to quickly source and verify many different types of participants, giving researchers access to whomever they want.

For example, just as people download an app or visit a website to use a marketplace like Uber or Airbnb, potential respondents could join a research marketplace, submit their public credentials (such as their LinkedIn or Facebook profiles) for verification, and wait for researchers to contact them for studies they qualify for. This makes them greats tools for general population studies. To further broaden the sample size, however, a marketplace can also pull public information from sources such as social media to locate users who have not signed up for the service, helping to bring in hard-to-find recruits for specialized studies.

In addition, this public data can be leveraged to quickly and easily verify potential respondents, eliminating the need for costly third-parties or separate verification services. This makes it possible for even non-researchers, such as designers or project managers, to source and verify respondents for quick turnaround projects, allowing companies of all types and sizes to conduct a greater volume of research. As this happens and the industry grows, marketplaces may even help accelerate the adoption of other technologies that have the potential to assist in research projects, such as AI, virtual reality, and more.


A heavily fragmented supply of respondents is one of the largest impediments to quality research, especially for projects that require a niche audience. Because of the industry’s lack of transparency, however, a researcher who requires access to a unique audience may be unable to access the participants they need. Marketplaces, in contrast, do not rely on proprietary lists. Built on a model of transparency, they instead pull from publicly accessible data, opening up access to even highly specific audiences across the globe.

Because of this, we believe online marketplaces should be considered the future of the research industry. By giving researchers access to a much broader pool of participants, introducing a greater degree of visibility, and lowering costs across the board, marketplaces make it possible for companies to stop worrying about sourcing the right respondents, and instead focus on conducting the research that will help them improve their products and get ahead of their competition.

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