Pop quiz: Where do you go for fast access to reliable, quality participants who are a guaranteed good-fit for your research needs?
- a. My own research panel
- b. A third-party research recruiting agency
- c. Facebook Marketplace
- d. Match.com
- e. I wish I knew!
The correct answer, of course, is: “a. My own research panel”
A research participant panel is a must-have for organizations that regularly do research with their customers or teams that want to talk to the same group of people over time—either as part of a long-term research project, or to investigate a variety of different topics with a consistent group of participants.
But how exactly do you recruit and build a research panel? How do you maintain it? What kinds of resources and tools do you need? Those are the questions we’re here to answer.
Note: This article was originally published in August of 2021. We updated it in October of 2022 with fresh tips, insights, and examples.
What is a user research panel, and why would you want one?
A research panel (also sometimes called a customer panel, survey panel, or consumer research panel) is a group of pre-screened people (often loyal customers) who have opted in to participate in your ongoing research efforts. These are folks that you have proactively (and preemptively) recruited with the intent of having them take part in various research activities over the long term. Think of them like your personally curated, on-demand pool of study participants.
There are several key benefits to building and maintaining a research panel. In addition to giving you access to direct customer input, it also helps to build trust and community with users by giving them a voice—and therefore a vested interest—in your product.
Having a set of research participants already identified, screened, and ready to go makes it easy to do qualitative research more quickly and with greater frequency—especially with a panel of niche, hard-to-recruit participants. You save a lot of time on the ops side of things, because the administrative and logistical work of recruiting the right people is already done (learn more about how to recruit folks for qualitative research here).
In addition to providing you with reliable, quick-turn research participants, a research panel also allows you to do iterative research. The ability to retest concepts at various stages with the original group of users can provide critical insights as you refine your ideas and execution.
👀 For an insider’s look (from one UXR to another) into how we build and manage our own panel at User Interviews, check out this write up from our VP of User Research, Roberta Dombrowski: How We Use Research Hub.
How to build a research panel
There are four main things to consider when you’re building a research panel: logistical details and technical requirements, big-picture management/ownership, the makeup of the actual participant panel, and how you will handle incentives.
Let’s go into more detail about how to make a panel of high-quality participants for UX research.
1. Understand your requirements
When Becky White was setting up an internal research participant panel at Atlassian, she was surprised to be more or less starting from scratch. In addition to sorting out who should be on the panel and how to effectively communicate with them (both big considerations), she also mapped out all the technical requirements she needed to meet to get her panel up and running:
- A professional-looking sign-up form and screeners
- A means to get the sign-up form in front of customers (a web page and other marketing initiatives)
- Secure storage of participant data
- The ability to pull lists of participants, based on specific criteria
- A way to delete participants, when requested
- Email messaging, with professional-looking layouts
- An official Research@ email address
- Simple scheduling, so participants could select a session time
- Incentives redeemable around the world
- An internal request/ticketing system
While Becky started out using a combination of different services to patch her panel system together. The Research Ops team at Atlassian (led by Kate Towsey—a legend in the Research Ops Community) eventually moved everything over to User Interviews’s Research Hub, which allows researchers to self-serve recruitment via a CMS-like system.
🎯 Looking for the best tool to recruit research participants? User Interviews is the #1-rated user research tool on G2. We're the only tool that lets you source, screen, track, and pay participants from your own panel, or from our 3-million-strong network. Sign up for a free account to get started.
2. Define panel ownership roles and responsibilities
Like any business asset, a research study panel becomes more valuable the more you invest in it. For maximum benefit, it’s likely that you will eventually need someone dedicated to maintaining and managing your panel.
A successful research panel is built on strong relationships, and we all know that relationships don’t manage themselves. It takes commitment, attention, and intention to make sure they flourish.
Here are just a few of the tasks that fall to a research operations or panel manager:
- Recruiting new participants to the panel
- Keeping existing panelists engaged with relevant communications
- Priming panel members for upcoming studies
- Fielding panelist questions before, during, and after studies
- Keeping the panel up to date as members are added, leave, or change roles
- Controlling panel access within your organization
- Ensuring that panelists’ private data is secure and protected
- Creating participant groups for specific research activities
🪜 For a more in-depth look at what goes into managing a research panel, check out our guide to building a Research Ops practice from the ground up.
3. Choose the right users for your research panel
Your research panel should be an accurate reflection of your larger user base. This means you’ll want to recruit for diversity, and not just in terms of demographics.
When building your panel, be aware of all the attributes that can affect how someone might experience your product and respond to questions. For example:
- How long has the person been a customer?
- Which plan are they on?
- Are they a power user or a less frequent user?
- Do they have specialized knowledge about your product—different from your average user—that could skew their opinions or mask issues that might arise for other users?
- Are they already predisposed to have a better-than-average opinion of your product or organization?
- Are users who sign up to participate on the panel intrinsically different in any way from users who decline your invitation?
As you grow your panel, other factors may come into play. For instance, you may need to be mindful of participants who become too familiar with your research methods, which can potentially jeopardize your access to fresh insights. You may also need to weed out for any professional testers that have made their way onto your panel.
4. Develop your participant incentive plan
Everyone likes to know that their time and effort is appreciated.
Sometimes, it’s enough to give a customer backstage access and the opportunity to directly influence your product road map. And most people get a kick out of receiving company swag, which serves the dual purpose of saying thanks and providing low-key marketing. You can often drive panelist engagement by offering access to more features or additional usage. While cash or gift cards are frequently offered as incentives for user research participants, financial compensation for research panelists is less common and can be less effective than other methods. The User Research Incentive Calculator (a data-backed calculator for user research) can help you determine the right incentive amount for your particular study.
But choosing which incentive to use is only one consideration. You also need to think about when to incentivize. Will you offer a reward just for being on the panel, or only when a panelist takes part in a study? Will the incentive be the same across the board, or different depending on the type of participation required? What if a panelist is eager to engage, but you can’t match them to an activity?
You also want to think about how compensation will add up over time. It would be awkward to offer a particular monetary reward, for instance, only to realize too late that delivering on that promise over the long term will be financially untenable. Do the math up front.
Finally, be aware of who you’re engaging and how they might perceive different kinds of incentives. Are you excluding an important segment of users if you don’t offer a financial incentive? Do you risk insulting high-profile participants by offering a token payment when an access-based incentive would be more appropriate? Do your panelists work in an industry (government, for example) that doesn’t permit any kind of rewards or gifts?
📌 Think you can skip out on incentives? Think again. Here's why incentives are non-negotiable for UX research (and how to offer them on a shoestring budget).
Tips for using and maintaining a research study panel
You’ve done the hard work of recruiting and building a participant panel—now what?
As the GitLab team says in their internal guide to creating and managing a research participant panel:
“A panel is a commitment. You will need to ensure you have the capacity to maintain communication and engage with the panelists on the schedule provided to them upon registration.”
By recruiting and approving folks for your research panel, you’ve set the expectation that you’ll be communicating with them regularly and contacting them about studies. Below are some tips to help you deliver on that expectation.
1. Filter panelists to find the right participants
As you collected applications for your panelists, you would’ve been collecting key information about who they are and how they interact with your product or brand.
Depending on the type of study you’re running, you’ll want to filter panelists based on relevant attributes such as age, job title, location, or account status. Narrow your panel down to a segment of people qualified for your study before you begin outreach.
If you’re using a spreadsheet or other manually-managed tool to organize your panel, you might find this type of segmentation a bit cumbersome. Many CRM systems have filtering capabilities, but because they’re not built for the research use case, they may not have all of the data you need. Purpose-built panel management tools like Research Hub allow you to create powerful segments, labels, and filters to easily pick and choose the right participants for your study.
💡 Pro tip: To avoid fatiguing your panel, mix and match recruiting sources when it’s appropriate for your study. For example, if you use User Interviews, you could mix and match participants from your own panel with those you recruit from our proprietary pool of more than 1.5 million vetted participants.
2. Send invites and schedule sessions
Once you’ve identified the panelists you want to participate in your study, ask them!
Send branded, professional invitations to panelists setting clear expectations for what the study is about, what you’ll need from them, and how you’ll communicate with them moving forward. You can expect a certain percentage of panelists to decline your invite, so send participation requests in small batches until you receive enough yeses to fill your study.
📚 Learn more: Research Hub allows you to set brand and communication defaults to ensure consistent, professional interactions with participants.
Consider using a scheduling tool like Calendly to make scheduling sessions as simple as possible. Or, if you’re using Research Hub as your panel management tool, you can sync your calendar and allow approved participants to schedule sessions from a pre-set allotment of available times.
3. Track panelist info and activity
Every good (read: useful, usable, and used) panel requires maintenance.
That means that you need to track panelists’ information and activity and update it in your panel management system as it changes.
Be sure to keep track of panelists’:
- Personal information: This includes attributes like job title, location, and account status.
- Outreach: How often have you invited them to participate in studies? Set a limit on this number to avoid fatiguing or irritating panelists. GitLab, for example, suggests limiting outreach to once per month.
- Participation: How many studies have they participated in? Again, you’ll want to set a limit on this number to avoid biasing your data.
- Incentives: How much have you paid this person for participating in your study? Set a limit for the amount of money a panelist can make per year to avoid going over budget.
- Ratings: After completed sessions, how would you rate each participant? Would you consider calling them back for further research?
Additionally, effective panel management involves protecting your participants’ personal data. Here’s a quick how-to guide on hiding participant names in Zoom recordings to keep their information confidential.
Note that the panel management platform Research Hub tracks participation for you: who’s participated in which studies, how much they’ve earned in incentives, and so on. All this information is available as you filter your panel and set invite rules.
Tools for recruiting research panelists
Once you’ve got your game plan, the next step is to actually recruit participants for your panel.
There are a number of ways to do this. You can use a purpose-built research panel management solution like User Interviews, your existing email and CRM platforms, or one of several other tools that can be adapted for DIY recruiting purposes. We’ve written up an overview of the different panel recruitment tools, but here’s a quick summary.
Many folks know that User Interviews offers a large pool of vetted research participants (over 1.5 million participants and counting). But did you know that we also offer an all-in-one panel management and recruitment automation platform?
Our Research Hub platform can make your research ops run smoothly by helping you build and manage your own panel, taking care of participant scheduling, keeping track of important participant data, and even managing incentive distribution after a research session.
Email or CRM platform
Your existing email or CRM probably offers a range of communication and audience management tools that can help you identify and manage unique lists of people, such as those you would need for a panel. While solutions like Salesforce can be pretty pricey, if you’re already using them, they can be a good interim option to get you started.
Our own research shows that, in most cases, companies who use these kinds of platforms for recruitment purposes use them in combination with at least one other tool.
Other tools for the DIY approach
Researchers often have to get creative with recruitment, especially when they are just starting out. From Calendly to social media to good old Google Sheets, there are all kinds of ways to build your own recruitment engine from scratch.
To replace a panel management tool like User Interviews, you’ll need tools for various functions, including:
- Signature collection
- Email CRM
- Incentives distribution
… and more.
The User Interviews panel management experience
Recruitment is only one part of building and maintaining a research panel. Once you’ve assembled your participants, you’ll need an efficient way to manage them.
If you decide to use User Interviews’s Research Hub, our powerful research panel management and recruitment automation platform, here’s a quick overview of some of the key time-saving features you will have at your fingertips:
Create and send opt-in forms in a snap. You can share the link with potential participants via email, social media, etc., and anyone interested in joining the panel will find it quick and easy to fill out your custom form.
Save the time and hassle associated with creating and sending new Zoom links for each session. This integration provides automatic generation of unique meeting links on the User Interviews platform. Visit our integrations page to learn more about our other integrations, API, and integrations on the roadmap.
This subscription-based feature allows you to label and organize your panel so you can easily build flexible lists, avoid confusing cross-communication between teams and studies, create a feedback council, and more.
Filter participants by a variety of criteria including labels, activities (e.g., project history, incentives earned), participant info like name and date added, as well as custom fields to meet your unique needs.
Invite participants from the project builder, the “Hub Participants” view, or from a launched project. You can also re-invite participants who didn’t apply the first time around.
Update copy and format for automated emails (project invite, approval notification, cancel/reschedule, session confirmation, thank you, etc.) on Hub projects. You can customize by adding copy or by adding/removing optional variables. You can also create templates to speed up your workflow on future projects.
Ensure the consistency, ethics, and legality of your research practice as it grows. User Interviews’s Document Signing Add-On automates signature collection for key documents, such as consent forms and NDAs. Visit our pricing page to see how you can customize your plan with Document Signing and other subscription add-ons.
Handle all the details from project set up and participant invitations to participant management (screeners, scheduling, etc.), recording participation, and downloading participant data.
You bring your own participants to Research Hub projects. With this in mind, we know it’s important for you to understand what the participant experience will be like. From the invite and signup to applications, confirmations, and scheduling, we make sure each step of the process is clear, convenient, and beautifully presented.
Start building and managing your research panel for free
Try Research Hub for free. And—if you’re a small team looking to manage a panel of up to 100 participants—good news: Research Hub stays free forever!
For teams with frequent research needs and a growing panel, we offer plans with room for up to 1 million contacts in your participant panel management platform. See our pricing page for details.