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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

‘We needed another approach to panel recruitment’

ResearchBods founders Robin Hilton and Jonathan Clough had their own ideas about the best way to recruit research panellists – and they’ve built a successful new business off the back of them.

New agencies have been hard to come by in recent years, particularly those specialising in online panels. In the UK it’s a highly competitive market, dominated by several large players, with a host of challengers coming in from overseas looking to make their mark. To say there’s pressure on prices would be an understatement.

In 2011, when ResearchBods had just got off the ground, co-founders Robin Hilton (pictured right) and Jonathan Clough found themselves asking: “What have we done?” The pair left their jobs at Dubit to launch the business, believing that there was another, better way to recruit online panels which would address some of the concerns raised by clients about the verification of panellists and the validity and robustness of online panel responses.

“If people are going to take the time to fill surveys in properly there has to be an emotional attachment there for them. That’s why we recruit establishments rather than individuals, as a way to hook people in”

Neither was new to the panel game. Hilton was a director and Clough head of online research services at Dubit, responsible for running their youth panel. They decided to strike out on their own based on a belief that Dubit’s business “wasn’t going in the direction that we needed to take panels”.

“Our view was that, really, if you’re going to remain in the panel business and make a success of it, there needed to be a lot of investments made in it,” says Hilton. “So Jonathan and I put together a plan and built it up over a while and then took it to Dubit. We explained that we had this idea for doing something different with panels and that we’d take on the management of their panel for them and continue to work with them. We had a discussion around it and decided ultimately that it would work for both companies, so we left and set up ResearchBods.”

Now, almost two years down the road, Hilton and Clough are celebrating winning the MRS 2012 Award for Best New Agency. The pair are clearly delighted to have won, but they can still recall those uncertain early days - a time when cost-per-interviews (CPI) were, in Hilton’s words, “bombing”.

“It was scary,” says Clough, “but it reinforced to us that there needed to be another approach to panel recruitment. Let’s say that CPIs were £2 and that they fell to £1.50. Ultimately that will have a knock-on effect on the respondent because they’ll see their incentive go down. So their motivation as a respondent will dwindle because they’re not getting as much for the same effort that they are putting in. So we had to find a way to motivate people other than money.”

Emotionally involved
That way was EduVoice. Clough and Hilton’s big idea was to approach primary and secondary schools, colleges and community groups and to get them to register with the scheme to help raise funds by inviting their pupils, parents, teachers and supporters to sign up with ResearchBods and take surveys. Each registered organisation gets given a unique code, which they distribute among their communities. Every time a panellist they’ve recruited completes a survey the organisation gets part of the incentive.

In July, when ResearchBods entered for Best New Agency, schools in the EduVoice scheme had raised £70,000.

“We knew we wouldn’t survive if we played the same game as everyone else so we really had to stick to our guns and form a wedge and a niche - and that was the recruitment process,” says Hilton.

“When we looked at what motivates people to do things for virtually no money obviously things like charitable giving came up. But with that, people tend to sign up for a £2-a-month direct debit or do one big fundraising event a year. What we wanted was an ongoing commitment - and where people do show that level of commitment it tends to be for something in their local community or the people they love.

“So we came to the conclusion that if people are going to fill in surveys - and take the time to fill them in properly - there has to be an emotional attachment there for them. For parents it’s going to be their kids and their schools, for other people it might be a church group or community group, and these groups need money to survive. So that’s why we started looking to recruit establishments rather than individuals, as a way to hook people in.”

ResearchBods has so far convinced 1,100 schools and several hundred community groups to sign up. It was a hard sell at the beginning, admits Clough, trying to navigate their way through school bureaucracies. “But once we partnered with a few schools and a national PTA association it really helped. Now it grows organically. We have a team that push it to schools, but we have headteachers coming to us to take part.”

Unexpected consequences
The EduVoice approach has done more than provide respondents with a reason to keep taking surveys. Clough and Hilton feel that they have been successful in bringing people on to their panel who might not have otherwise agreed to take part in research. Their involvement with school board and PTAs has also brought them into contact with volunteers who, in their day jobs, have found a use for the agency’s services.

But perhaps most pleasing is the self-sustaining nature of the system they have set up. “A lot of other panel companies worry about recruitment costs and they might have to pay an affiliate to drive people towards their websites to recruit panellists,” says Clough. “Our model is quite sustainable in that once we have an establishment on board, like a secondary school, each year there are new pupils, parents and grandparents that get brought on board by the school, so for us there is no physical cost-per-panellist.”

Still, Hilton says, the company is under pressure to expand the panel. At 200,000 members it’s fairly small compared to what the likes of Research Now and Toluna offer. “One of the pieces of feedback we get from some of the bigger research groups is that if they are going to get us to do their large-scale trackers, they’d like a bigger panel,” says Hilton. “Our challenge over the next year and a half is to address that issue, and hopefully the MRS Award will go some way to helping achieve that - to convince them that, yes, you can trust us with those bigger projects and we have got the resources to deliver them.”

ResearchBods certainly has the scope to grow its panel. Clough says there are approximately 25,000 schools in the UK, “and we don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t try and get every one of those signed up”. Meanwhile the company has reported growth in demand for its data processing and scripting services and is looking to expand capabilities in both areas.

Treading carefully
Clough and Hilton aren’t only concerned with their own direction of travel, however. They worry about where the panel industry is heading, and are keeping a careful eye on America’s more mature market where some are talking about whether the business model can survive much longer.

“Panels have been abused,” Hilton says in no uncertain terms. “At ResearchBods, we’re at the point of saying that we’re just not going to do any more surveys that take longer than 20 minutes to complete. When we’ve looked into it what we see is that the respondents doing those surveys are getting bored and dropping out and they are then not as responsive in other surveys.

“We’re looking to put in place standards like the 20-minute survey ban and other rules, and we’d really like to get the other panel companies on board and have an independent body oversee it so that panel companies and online can continue to co-exist.”

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