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Grow Your Participant Panel With Opt-in Forms

This small-but-mighty tool is your key to connecting with more customers, creating an always-on insights hub for your stakeholders.

Right now, as you’re reading this, folks are using your products and services. They’re adding colleagues, trying—and maybe breaking—new features, and getting more done because of your hard work. Wouldn’t you love to know what they’re thinking: why they’re choosing this or that option, lingering on one page vs another, what competitors they might be considering?

Well, many of them actually want to share that feedback and the opt-in form is the way to start turning that interest into action. An opt-in form lets your customers self-recruit, and is a research industry best practice for powering and growing customer panels or communities.

New to participant panels and communities? Check out this overview to learn more about these powerful tools for scaling customer insight.

This guide dives into the opt-in form. Read on to learn what it is, why you need one, and best practices for building them. An opt-in form strategy can be the start of a customer insights flywheel, powering more thoughtful decisions across your company.

What is an opt-in form?

An opt-in form is a way to invite folks to a research participant panel or community. They typically appeal to customers by positioning participation as an easy and beneficial way to provide feedback (e.g., “Join other [insert role] and gain access to beta product features and new releases.”).

Opt-in forms are often the first touchpoint on a longer customer feedback journey, one that might involve additional profile creation, consent form completion, and—eventually—participation in customer focused research. This kind of two-way engagement has been at the heart of some companies’ community-led growth models. When customers are given space to share their opinions, bump into others like them, and learn along the way, the result can be a motivated and invested user base. This can create product stickiness, loyalty, and evangelism.

Many participant panels make use of multiple opt-in forms, sometimes distributed simultaneously based on a specific set of criteria (more on those below). Although a single opt-in form might be used to start a participant panel, as they mature, panel or community managers often create and deploy forms based on a project, team, time, and even behavioral-level data. Managing these multiple opt-in forms (and coordinating between the various teams using them) is a factor in the decision for many teams to use a participant panel management tool or CRM.

screenshot of Google's User Experience Research hompage
Google’s panel opt-in form, featured on a landing page.

Elements of a good opt-in form

A “good” opt-in form shares characteristics with “good” sales emails, social media posts, and even product tutorials. In general, they’re short, clear in their request, and tailored for their audience in some way. Let’s look at these elements in turn.

Choose a name and be consistent with it

This helps reinforce the request (which you’ll do throughout the opt-in form), and level set expectations. It also helps keep things organized if they open the form and lose track of it among their dozens (or hundreds) of open browser tabs. 

For example:

  • “Join the Acme Customer Insights Board”
  • “Test out Beta versions of Acme’s product”
  • “Your voice matters—join Acme’s research community”

Keep them brief (and complete)

This is only the first step in what should be a longer engagement with your customer. There will be plenty of time to espouse brand virtues, ask probing questions, and share updates about your product roadmap. For now, stay focused on the goal: getting customers to join your panel. That’s it.

Now ask yourself, “What information would I need before opting in?” and work backward. This becomes the body or bulk of your opt-in forms copy or structure. Let’s use the example of a research panel to breakdown each bit of info a person might want and need.

Here, the desired action is joining the panel, therefore we need to share:

  • Why we’re messaging them specifically
  • What a research panel is, at a high level
  • Who will be their primary point of contact
  • The benefits they’ll experience by joining

Whenever launching a new opt-in form, assume your audience does not know what a panel/insight board/community is. Don’t get too pedantic with it, but don’t assume they’ll know the reasons for your request. Take the extra step to spell it out in a respectful way.

Tailor your form copy whenever possible

Remember, the purpose of a participant panel is not just to make things easier on you and your team (although it does that). It’s also about creating goodwill with your customers—they should be receiving a benefit here, too. In service of that relational (as opposed to transactional), spirit try to tailor an opt-in form for the audience.

This can be something as small as using a customizable text field so that the person’s name or company is shown, but it can (and should) go a step further. For example:

  • If you’re speaking about a specific product, have you mentioned it?
  • If targeting a certain role, is that included?
  • If based on a user’s behavior, has that been stated?

When you embark on a new campaign to attract customers to your panel, that’s a perfect time to re-evaluate your “standard” opt-in form and tailor it for your segment.

Use a single call to action (CTA)

This is borrowed from sales and marketing best practice: multiple CTAs can confuse a reader, which might result in no button being clicked at all. Keep your opt-in form focused indicating interest in participation; don’t share any other link besides the one that lets people do that.

And don’t forget to make the anchor text (that’s the text that displays “on top of” of the link) match with the goal of the CTA. For example, it might read “I’m interested” or “Get started.” Making this an action (compared to simply “Click here”) will make the opt-in form more compelling.

Use brand design

This best practice is especially important when opt-in forms are shared over public channels, such as social media, forums, or even cold email. When opt-ins are shared via your own tool or platform, they carry the credibility of being in your product. Folks are more likely to believe the request is real (and not spam) by dint of it coming from within the tool.

When detached from your product experience, using design cues like your brand’s colors, font, and especially logo can go a long way toward building trust and credibility with your audience—with these elements present, customers are less likely to suspect it’s spam.

Send a confirmation notice immediately

Whether you’re using a purpose-build panel management tool or building a panel manually, create (or send) a confirmation message immediately (or as soon as possible) after a customer submits their form. This is a critical point in the customer community journey. Even a message simply reading, “Success! You’ve opted into our community—stay tuned for more…” closes the loop with customers and lets them know to expect more from you sometime soon.

screenshot of User Interviews opt-in form editor
The User Interviews Research Hub opt-in form editor.  Note that custom questions can be added which are ported into the panel automatically after completion.

Ways of organizing opt-in forms

No two teams or organizations will use opt-in forms in exactly the same way. Thinking carefully about when to deploy them can offer your team more tailored, relevant data.

Here are a few ways to organize opt-in forms, especially if you’re planning to use several different ones to grow your panel or community in specific ways over time (and you should).

Product

If your experience ecosystem includes multiple, discrete product offerings, creating an opt-in form for certain ones (or each one) will give your product, engineering, and design teams tailored data to make the most relevant decisions. This could be especially useful for new products (to capture early-adopter feedback), but could be just as important for legacy ones (to identify areas for improvement or sunsetting).

Action or behavior

There are many times when a product team would like to connect with customers who took a specific action or set of actionson an experience. Examples includemight be using a new feature, adding a specific user role (like a viewer), or maybe visiting a specific settings or preferences panel. Getting this level of granularity can be critical when making product improvement decisions. Having in-context feedback about usage, paired with back-end analytics, drives confidence in roadmapping and development bandwidth. 

Time

This category can be useful in onboarding new customers, engaging sputtering or stagnating accountsaccount, or learning from your most-tenured relationships. A sales or account team likely has milestones of time during the life of an account: first 30 days, 6 months, etc. These milestones or marker moments make for important touchpoint opportunities and therefore an excellent time to share an opt-in form.

User Interview’s Research Hub offers customizable opt-in forms for all your panel recruitment needs. Bring up to 100 customers free.

Persona

Persona-based opt-in forms might involve some of these other categories (e.g., heavy feature users who just renewed a contract), but a more traditional persona-based approach to opt-in forms leverages internal audience segmentation. This might be along a user role, team type, or function. Although personas within the user research community is a contentious topic, a composite profile of an “ideal” or “focused” customer can help you when it’s time to recruit new folks for a panel.

Demographic

Not all personas or customer profiles are composed of demographic characteristics. Sharing opt-in forms with specific groups (e.g., customers who are BIPOC, under 30, or who make use of accessibility technology) can be a very useful way to learn how your product is (or is) not meeting the expectations of a diverse customer base. Market researchers often explore product fit with new customer segments and categories based on combinations of demographic variables. If your company is new (or repositioning), a demographic opt-in form could be just the way to recruit a general population (“gen-pop”) for research.

Convenience

An evergreen way academics recruit research participants (extra credit for students anyone?), the convenience sample is a very popular approach. As the name suggests, a convenience approach is getting whoever is “around” or available to join the panel. This can be prone to some biases (e.g., is there something unique about folks who volunteer to participate compared with those who do not), however if you’re sharing an opt-in form with current or would-be customers, the data shared should be useful to stakeholder teams. Convenience sampling can be a fast and efficient way to get traction building a customer research panel, even if it’s not as targeted as the others.

It’s very important to coordinate with stakeholder teams before sharing an opt-in form, regardless of the type. Some times are better than others to ask for customer engagement, and it’s critical to respect the experience of customers. Polling your colleagues about variables— like account activity (is the team very busy?), industry headwinds, or company changes (like layoffs)— is always a good step to take before reaching out to a customer about joining a participant panel.

a sample opt-in form made with Google Forms
An example of an opt-in form using Google Forms.

Best practices for your opt-in form

Set clear expectations up-front

Panel participation is a relationship. It should not feel like an extractive experience to these folks,where your company is only “taking” their insight, attitudes, and perceptions without compensation. 

Although the opt-in form doesn’t necessarily need to spell out every detail of participating the panel, it should overview key details such as:

What kinds of data research studies are likely to collect (e.g., attitudes, perceptions, aspects of working life)

  • The method and frequency of communication about studies
  • Which kinds of studies they’re likely to experience (e.g., interviews, focus groups, unmoderated tests)
  • The kinds of incentives (e.g., early platform access, monetary) and typical range
  • The purpose of the panel—how your company plans to use the data collected

Depending on your industry and organization, you may be required to obtain informed consent or share a data privacy statement. Check with your legal or research ops team to understand those requirements. Data use policies are critical for any product team these days—especially when collecting information from customers themselves.

Offer participants a chance to share something within the form

Dedicated panel platforms like User Interviews let you customize the questions you ask in your opt-in form. If a customer has taken the time to engage with your opt-in form, create a few questions right then and there (instead of simply a tickbox indicating their confirmation). 

This can be a good moment to offer customers some space for feedback, and/or collect some information central to how you’ll organize the panel. Keep these questions focused on things related to participating in the panel itself. Remember, your sales and/or account teams likely have information about these folks already, so consider something that’s easy to answer, not easily gleaned from existing CRM data, and immediately useful to your recruiting needs. 

(Many purpose-built research panel tools include customizable APIs to connect customer data your company is already collecting with your panel.)

For example:

  • [closed-end] How frequently would you like to be contacted for studies? (Monthly; Every other month; Quarterly; Annually)
  • [open-end] What is your [insert role] superpower?
  • [closed-end] Which of the following study types interest you? (Testing new features; Sharing opinions on use cases; Focus groups)

Again, don’t overdo it with these questions. The goal is to offer your customer insights panelists a chance to give you a leg up when it’s time to recruit for your study. You may learn something that becomes a key characteristic for organizing your panel.

Where to share opt-in forms

One of the many benefits of opt-in forms is their portability. They can flex with the specific nuances of your customer base. Here are a few “places” to consider surfacing your opt-in form.

Social media and communities 

This can and should include both traditional social media (such as LinkedIn) as well as “dark social,” such as community forums, trade-specific groups, and other digital places where your customers hang out. When posting in less visible social areas (e.g. Reddit subforums, Slack communities) check the community guidelines, as there may be specific areas or content formatting for participant requests. You should also have a customer verification step to ensure that the folks opting in are, in fact, customers (like asking for their work email).

In-platform/app

Asking for customers to participate in research within your own product ecosystem is a tried-and-true way of building a panel. Many tools exist to surface messages in-platform. Given that your customer will be using your product, try to time your message to cause the least disruption. For example, many of these tools have time-based triggers, so that an opt-in form is shown after a few minutes as opposed to the first thing a customer sees.

There is a lot of nuance around in-platform or in-app notifications, especially if your product, marketing, or design teams are using them to communicate updates and news. Check out this guide to best-practices for in-app notifications generally.

Email

For many companies, email is the primary channel of communication with their customers. Consider partnering with your marketing team to help build a tailored list of customers based on certain characteristics. Email filtering to “protect” inboxes has grown significantly since the remote/hybrid work revolution, so extra care may be needed to encourage  deliverability and engagement. Coordinate with other customer-emailing teams to make sure your opt-in form isn’t the fourth (or tenth) message a customer has received from your company in a single day.

Creating rolling, ongoing opt-in campaigns is a good way to keep a panel growing, offering more customers (and types of customers) for your stakeholder teams to engage with. Again, connect with your marketing or account teams on to find a healthy cadence.

Success, support, and account teams

A key benefit of participant panels is encouraging internal stakeholder teams—such as product, design, and engineering—to get more involved in the research process. These teams can also be a solid distribution channel. Success or account teams might share opt-in forms with clients during check-ins or kickoffs; support teams can send to folks who offer feedback via a help desk request (especially useful if the request was solved). In short, asking other departments to share opt-in forms helps both grow your community and socialize research’s importance to the wider company.

Dedicated community page or site

Many of the world’s largest, most innovative companies not only use opt-in forms for participant and customer communities, they publish them on public webpages. These pages include much of the same information discussed in this guide: background on what the community is, the kinds of studies or projects involved, and what rewards or compensation are offered.

screenshot of workdays Research Community page
workday’s customer research panel page.
screenshot of Salesforce's Research Program page
Salesforce’s customer research panel page.

Use this quick-start guide to start empowering stakeholders to get more involved with customer research.

TL;DR

An opt-in form is a way of attracting customers into a panel or community. These panels are often used to centralize and streamline user research. There are a number of ways to create, categorize, and share opt-in forms. A good opt-in form should be transparent in describing how the panel or community will operate, capture a focused amount of information from customers, and result in an immediate confirmation/follow-up message. 

A seemingly small part of any team’s research workflows, a well-planned opt-in form strategy can set the stage for a dynamic insights hub, offering customers the opportunity to share feedback and more departments within your company to learn from them. 

In short: a win-win.

Ben Wiedmaier
Senior Content Marketing Manager
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