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Traditional Online Panel vs. Programmatic Sample

Technology is driving growth across industries, creating space for unconventional ideas and technological innovations that infiltrate traditional models and disrupt the status quo. Learn how to decide between a programmatic vs an online panel for your next research study.

Editor’s Note: The state of the online sample is an ongoing source of debate in the survey industry. Given the rapid pace of technology change, it is healthy to have a vigorous debate, and we’ve certainly had a fair number of submissions on the topic in the past year. Here, Art Padilla gives us his take on the debate over online panels versus programmatic samples. I think it is safe to say that we can expect the debate to continue for some time.


Technology is driving growth across industries, creating space for unconventional ideas and technological innovations that infiltrate traditional models and disrupt the status quo. Companies unable to pivot find themselves in the fight of their lives. Peer to peer ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, for example, have wounded the taxi industry, and entertainment streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu, are slowly sending linear TV to an early grave. Technology’s profound impact on the industry, in general, and especially service industries like the Online Sample industry will only intensify as emerging technologies like AI and machine learning inch toward mass adoption.

But let’s turn the clock back to the mid-2000s and talk about the technology that upended the way people communicate – social media. Myspace, Hi5, and Facebook, during that time, were in their infancy. Google launches Gmail, strategically providing millions of users with free personal email addresses to access their suite of services, including the now-defunct Google+. What most people don’t realize is that social networks and the easy access to user email addresses changed the market research industry forever, and here’s how.

In this corner – Old School “Online Panel”

Online panels are communities of individuals sourced by sample providers to take online surveys. This business model is cost-effective for market researchers as thousands of people can be interviewed in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost. Social media provides an alternative way to collect a sample by accessing broader online communities.

There are many benefits to traditional online panels. Sample providers can create more niche communities because they have more control over who enters the community. By undergoing a series of quality control checks, it can be easily determined if the respondent is a good fit. If the potential respondent passes muster, they are accepted into the panel. The most effective panels provide live customer service to respondents, typically via phone with a real person on the other end to answer the respondent’s questions. In successful cases, the panelist moves from the actual panel to the best match survey (double opt-in), and usually takes about 5-10 surveys per year. This process improves data quality.

The problem with traditional online panels is keeping up with demand. The sample company must have bid managers and project managers available to process client requests 24 hours a day, which erodes the cost savings previously mentioned.

Now, let’s fast forward to the mid-2010s.

In this corner – New Age “Programmatic Sample”

By this time, the internet is faster, WIFI is ubiquitous, and artificial intelligence is making our devices smarter. Technology is cheaper and more accessible, and the term “programmatic” embeds itself in industry vernacular. A new business model emerges for the Online Sample industry called programmatic sampling composed of routers and APIs, which have become the preferred business model among sample companies.

A programmatic sample is a platform that connects to and tracks user behavior across multiple internet mediums, from websites to social media, affiliate sites to online panels, data is captured by an API (Applied Programmatic Integration). This new technology aggregates millions of people from the internet and places them at the ready for the next available online survey with a few clicks of a mouse.

The benefits of a programmatic sample are straight forward. They can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year all over the world with minimal or no intervention from project managers or bids mangers.

But programmatic has its challenges as well. The interaction between the respondents is greatly diminished or disappears entirely, and the respondents are given a blanket label of “online traffic.” The online traffic that enters the routers is less controlled, and the respondent’s survey experience is less than ideal. They encounter multiple survey windows before they get to the actual survey. The double opt-in model is lost, and it becomes more of a quintuple opt-in model, which some respondents don’t like. Due to this, most respondents in this model will only take one or two surveys in a lifetime and then leave the platform forever.

However, the router will keep the wheels turning and consistently generate new online traffic (online respondents). Like a Ferris Wheel, people hop on and hop off, but programmatic sample always keeps adding new people and continues to do so until it is turned off.

And the Winner is?

It’s hard to say but it favors a tie. Some believe that traditional online panels are dying due to the high cost of maintaining them. However, this model offers better data quality and access to niche sample sectors like U.S. Hispanics and other minority groups. The issue is speed and sample volume, which the programmatic sample model excels in. Perhaps the best bet is for sample companies to provide a hybrid of both models. But even then, as technology evolves and clients feel more pressure to produce relevant marketing campaigns that generate positive ROI, programmatic sampling still has the advantage. It will be interesting to watch how technology transforms the sample industry over the next ten or so years.

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Art Padilla

Art Padilla

Director of Panels, ThinkNow