The Washington Post gave readers an informative glimpse into the debate raging among research professionals over the use of "opt-in Internet survey data," or what we call panel research.
Using databases, as opposed to randomly selected samples, is not new or even exceptional. Organizations that have collected email addresses from customers, patients and stakeholders use panel research on a routine basis to measure everything from customer satisfaction to reactions to advertising to introductions of new products and services.
The qualms over panel research center on its application to public-opinion polling. Traditional researchers believe telephone surveys remain the gold standard and web-based surveys remain untested. Like The Washington Post and New York Times, we respectfully disagree.
The national newspapers use YouGov polling, which relies on representative panels drawn from huge databases. Participants opt in to the panel through an online survey. But the pollsters in charge manage the panel's profile to match the "public" being measured, whether it is the national electorate or likely voters in an Ohio congressional district.
We conduct online research using panels for both market and public-opinion research. Ensuring a representative sample of participants is important whether you are relying on a proprietary database or drawing from databases that you lease.
Soliciting panel participants from leased databases through email is not all that different than drawing a random sample of phone numbers to call on the telephone. Both generally work on the principle of probability. The skill and integrity of polling comes from making sure wherever your sample comes from, it accurately reflects the constituency you are trying to poll