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MR Realities: Panel Pains

My son (a student) and I (unemployed) were seduced by the string of emails from various panels enticing us with the promise of riches to be made simply by sitting on the couch and filling in the odd questionnaire “ on subjects you really care about” as one panel promised.

 survey scam

By Dave McCaughan

Have you ever signed up to be a member of on-line/mobile panels? Don’t – it is a nightmare experience.

Last year I went through a big life change. After nearly three decades I left corporate life, moved country, set up my own business, had my youngest child leave home for university. Big year. In the middle of it i ended up in Sydney for a month with not much to do, in winter, sitting around my mother-in-law’s house with my son as he waited to start his degree. For the most part we were bored. Lots of going for runs, reading all sorts of books (paper versions for me, digital for him), my learning and getting thrashed at some new computer games and eating too much of my wife’s and mother-in-law’s Italian food.

Boredom! The cause of many mistakes. Like signing up to panels. My son being an unemployed student and my being between “gigs” as I put it, were partly seduced by the string of emails from various panels enticing us with the promise of riches to be made simply by sitting on the couch and filling in the odd questionnaire “ on subjects you really care about” as one panel promised. So on a particularly dreary day we sat together and filled in the required details on all eleven panels that in some way had reached out to us. Now here I have to admit i was perfectly honest in all the details. I did stretch the response when a few, not all, the panels asked if i worked in the MR/marketing/advertising industry. Technically i was unemployed at the time after all. But I have to say I also find that question both offensive and redundant. The subject of a future rant?

So we had filled in our life details and within an hour the first request to join a panel – “be quick and join this research panel and you can earn 3000 points”. Wow! 3000 points for what was promised would be no more than fifteen minutes work on a subject i was interested in. My son got the same request. He thought he would be trading in points for a major lifestyle product any day. Except..…

…..Even though we started at the same time I got three questions in and was told the sample was full. But I could click on a button to go to a different survey and get 2000 points (none for the first try) again for fifteen minutes work. Which I did and again after a couple of questions I was told I was not needed but could try with a third survey (3000 points this time) which i did and it all happened again. I gave up after five offers and none accepting me. About 40 minutes of my life i won’t get back with no explanation how I offended and did not get to actually fill any of the surveys.

Meanwhile my son did complete the first one. He is a pretty bright young guy, a quick typist and relatively patient. That last point was important because the survey took 25 minutes not 15 as promised. And as soon as he finished he received another request. Which he declined thinking “3000 points is a good days work” … except he then checked and found out that he would need 300,000 to actually get anything.

And that was all from just one of the eleven panels we signed up to in the first hour after signing up.

Over the next week we tried again and again. We worked out were spending up to two hours a day trying to respond to requests to join surveys. On an average day between us we received 23 requests, only got past initial filtering 3 times and earned on average 3000 points a day or 1-2 dollars. Some panels instead of points, generously paying in dollars, which could only be redeemed when accrued to a given number that we worked out would take us six to ten weeks of spending more than an hour a day, seven days a week to get to around $100. Which even to my university student son seemed “a real rip off dad”.

But we kept going for that whole month. If a panel asked we answered, and were nearly always rejected. Over four weeks were asked over 400 times to join “a survey that will be of great interest to you”. Some panels were sending us requests 3 times a day. And 90 per cent of the time before we got to question three we were rejected or told the sample was full, but asked to try another straight away.

Now think about that. Obviously i was doing my own piece of research here, and my son was the victim of a father pushing him to help. Would normal, sane human beings put up with this? A dollar reward, sometimes two, for a promised fifteen minutes that usually you were quickly rejected from. And in our experience never took less than twenty minutes to complete and often were obviously not designed for mobile formats which we primarily used and where panels had asked we had stated we would use mobile as a preference.

Let me say I am not picking on Australian panels in particular. This little exercise only confirmed what I had seen and heard from non MR/marketing/advertising friends in Japan, Hong Kong and other places.

ESOMAR conferences and others, the pages of our industry journals, websites and blogs are full of angst over of recruitment, compliance and sampling. Well they should be. If an insurance company, a bank, Amazon or any other businesses treated people the way we do we would be writing articles about their lack of understanding of customer service, absence of consumer insight and bad use of direct marketing.

Over the subsequent seven months I moved to Bangkok, my son successfully got through his first half year of university … and between us we still get 6-7 requests to join a survey every day even though we have not responded to one since July. In any other business that would be seen as appalling database management.

So here is the thing – how about we all, everyone that works in MR in any way signs up for panels, if you manage an MR company reward your staff for doing so, undertake the exercise of actually doing some market research on being the “consumer” and actually consuming the whole experience we put people through. I know most of us are diligent in testing our surveys, of checking they are answerable etc. and most that I did manage to answer were long, boring but not difficult. I know many companies are playing (pun intended) with more gaming, shorter form surveys etc.


And most of all treat the people we are asking to help us as valued customers.




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6 responses to “MR Realities: Panel Pains

  1. I would love your ideas,thoughts on improving service to panel participants ( not the survey design, the service in approaching, signing up, directing, rewarding, thanking the participants ). In the week since originally posting this article I have received ideas and also requests for solutions .. please help so i can compile a follow up

  2. Once upon a time, before the advent of panel data, some of the big mr clients would sometimes evaluate mr agencies by administering the same questionnaire through different agencies. The client could then compare the results from the different agencies. Where possible, they would compare the results to external data. Now, data collection and tabulation are much less expensive, making it possible for smaller companies to run these sorts of tests. Questionnaires and sample sizes needn’t be large for this to pay off for client. It would also impose some market discipline that seems to be lacking these days. 🙂

  3. The flip side of this relates to the elephant in the room with regards to panels and the quality of data they produce. Obviously part of the reason you failed to qualify for surveys was because you weren’t in the right demographic, or hadn’t purchased a convection oven in the last 3 months… But the other reason will have been because of the many “pro” survey takers who know the tricks to qualify, and quickly complete as many studies as possible (often giving random or inaccurate answers) in order to accumulate rewards and points at a speed that makes it worthwhile.

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