Panel Research and Engagement: A Perfect Fit

Check out panel research to see whether its information-rich benefits match your need to understand and engage a key audience.

Check out panel research to see whether its information-rich benefits match your need to understand and engage a key audience.

Panel research and engagement go together. You can gain feedback, share information and reap the benefits of extended conversations.

There really isn't any other formal research technique that can deliver that full set of benefits.

The research technique used always should match the objective of the research. Panel research works best under these conditions:

  • You want a large, representative sample of opinion from — for example — your customer database or registered voters.

  • You want the ability to segment your sample for follow-up research based on answers they give, not random selection.

  • You want to engage people in an extended dialogue, with repeat conversations about multiple products or in-depth discussion of an evolving piece of legislation.

Web-based panel research offers other virtues, such as the ability of respondents to answer survey questions at their leisure, not when someone calls them on the phone, or to participate in an online focus group instead of trooping to a hotel room equipped with a camera and cold sandwiches.

While erasing time and space concerns is valuable, the bedrock value of panel research lies in its capacity to engage. You can do more than ask questions. You can cultivate the panel by sharing the findings of the survey they participated in, asking follow-up questions or soliciting their volunteered thoughts.

Unlike a phone call during dinnertime, panel research isn't intrusive. It is inclusive. Respondents can participate at noon or midnight. They can offer more than the one answer to a multiple-choice question. They can ask questions and seek answers. Your research goes from an uneasy transaction to satisfying involvement. 

Two-way involvement is a very different quality than you get from a traditional telephone poll, in-person survey or point-of-sale intercept. The richness of information that panel can yield is the argument for doing it.

Not all situations require rich information. But many do. Panel research is worth exploring to see whether it is the right choice to meet your challenge.

Fingers in the Wind

Some people dismiss solid research as little more than holding a wet finger aloft to see which way the wind is blowing. There is a similarity, but also a big difference.

Sticking a finger into the air is an idiom associated with finding out where the crowd is headed. It is a trait usually attributed to followers, not leaders. Your finger can tell you the direction of flow, but not its cause.

That's the difference between finger measurements and quality research. A well-designed survey with a representative sample can yield information about why people are heading in a particular direction.

The role of research is to provide a disciplined way to listen so you know where a crowd is going or might go, and how you can influence and lead them.

In his book Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership, Garry Wills says leaders aren't leaders without followers. Great leaders, Wills says, know where followers are willing to go and form partnerships so they go there together. Followers don't submit to leaders, Wills insists. They join them on a journey.

You can only form a partnership with your followers if you have spent time listening and getting to know them.

Credible research, whether in the form of surveys or focus groups, is an exercise in leadership because it respects followers enough to find out what they are thinking and why they are thinking it — or what some call market intelligence.

With modern techniques that bridge research and engagement, you also have a trusted channel to interact with people you want as customers or supporters. There is nothing wimpy about that.

In fact, the wimps are those who shun research and go with hunches. Who but a wimp would risk a $1 million advertising buy or a major public-policy campaign on a feeling in the gut or a finger in the wind? Astonishingly, people do it everyday, then wonder why their messages fall flat.

The Primordial Power of Storytelling

Since we learned to draw on cave walls, mankind has been telling stories. Now a Seattle senior center is demonstrating how storytelling can be a successful communications tool for dementia patients — and perhaps proving the technique's worth in reaching any distracted or disinterested audience.

Elderly persons suffering from dementia lose their memory. That lack of memory can generate deep frustration in trying to communicate with loved ones they don't recognize.

In Seattle, storytelling is treated like therapy, according to a piece aired by NPR. Patients are shown interesting photographs and asked to compose a story about the life of the person in the picture. Since these aren't personal pictures, patients don't need to struggle to recall faces, names or places. They just make up the stories, which creates a form of release. Patients can communicate without the burden of a failing memory.

The Notebook, a highly regarded romance movie released in 2004, centers around an elderly man (James Garner) reading a passionate love story to an elderly woman with dementia (Gena Rowlands). The story captivates Rowlands' character, but it isn't until toward the end of the movie that you realize the love story is about these two characters when they were young. The story's happy ending jogs a burst of memory in Rowlands' character, and she recognizes Garner as her lifelong love. Their embrace is sadly fleeting, but deeply revealing.

Whether storytelling can actually revive memory in dementia patients is debatable, but there is no doubt storytelling can spark interest in all kinds of people and all kinds of subjects.