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07/27/2007

Online research panels vs. social networks

There is a lot of discussion these days in the research community about incentives (points, money, coupons, possibility to see the results of surveys etc.) for respondents participating in online research panels. I think that the most interesting alternative would be the possibility for a respondent to take her incentives, quit her participation in an online research panel and join a social network instead.

The transition from an online research panel to a social network is similar to the transtion from a totalitarian society to a true democracy - this is how I see it, with my Eastern European mindset. Online research panel are built top down. Respondents are neatly segmented and kept in their cells to emerge only to do the tedious tasks of checking boxes in research questionnaires. Then they collect their wages and go back to their isolated cells. Misbehaving, dissident respondents are thrown out of the panel.

Social networks are built from the bottom up by individuals with faces and personalities. People aren’t paid to join social networks – they do it because they want to participate.

Facebook, one of the largest and most successful social networks, has recently launched their own polls, enabling anyone to do her own research. At the moment, the design of the research is very narrow: it is possible to create one closed-ended question per poll with a maximum of five answers. The site charges for the research depending on how quickly the results are provided and how large the sample size.

The polls maybe simplistic, but it’s only the beginning... I also think that the best research on Facebook in the future probably won’t be polling but rather research done with groups, those small communities built around common passions and interests. There is no charge for the researcher to join, participate and listen. However, one has to ask what a researcher could charge a client for such work.

Let’s consider two scenarios for the future. In the first, online research panels become more important in the future as they offer a two-fold incentive to respondents – more money and the means to participate and see the results of the surveys. In the second, online panels will gradually disappear to be replaced by social networks which will offer research as an added product to generate revenues, similar to the way that advertising is now added to social networks.

If I had to bet money on one of these scenarios, I'd put my money on the side of the social networks

I tried to do my own poll on Facebook  yesterday, asking the Russians on Facebook question about major religion in Russia in 2100.

This is the intro screen.  You can then type in your question plus 5 answers and pay for the survey:

Facebookpollintro_3

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Once you have paid (this poll cost me $11), your poll goes live and you can start checking the progress:

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I have received the results (100 completes) in about 8 hours:

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