When it is important to collect information on trends, whether with respect to consumer preferences and purchasing behaviour or changes in business climate and opportunities, researchers may decide to set up a panel of individuals which can be questioned or surveyed over an extended period of time.

There are essentially three different types of panels:

The most common uses for panels are

  • Trend monitoring and future assessment,
  • Test marketing and impact assessment, and
  • Priority setting for planning and development.

There are some clear advantages to using panels. These include the fact that recall problems are usually minimized, and that it is even possible to study the attitudes and motivation of non-respondents. However, it must also be recognized that maintaining panels is a constant effort. Since there is a tendency for certain people to drop out (those that are too busy, professionals, senior executives, etc.), this can lead to serious bias in the type of respondent that remains on the panel. Participants can also become too sensitized to the study objectives, and thus anticipate the responses they " should" be giving.

Related Readings (LaPage, W.F. (1994). "Using Panels for Travel and Tourism Research", Ch. 40 in Ritchie and Goeldner; Zikmund, W.G. (1997). Exploring Marketing Research, 6th edition. Orlando: The Dryden Press)

Consumer Panels

When researchers are interested in detailed information about purchasing behaviour or insight into certain leisure activities, they will often resort to panels of consumers. A panel will allow the researcher to track behaviour using the same sample over time. This type of longitudinal research provides more reliable results on changes that occur as a result of life cycle, social or professional status, attitudes and opinions. By working with the same panel members, intentions can be checked against action, one of the more problematic challenges that researchers face when studying planned purchases or intentions to engage in certain behaviour (e.g. going on trips, visiting certain sites, participating in sports, etc.).

But looking at trends is not the only use for panels. They can also provide invaluable insight into product acceptance prior to the launch of a new product or service, or a change in packaging, for instance. Panels, whether formally established or tracked informally through common behaviour (e.g. membership in a club, purchase of a specific product, use of a fidelity card, etc.), can also be used to study the reaction to potential or actual events, the use of promotional materials, or the search for information.

Compared to the depth interview and the focus group, a panel is less likely to exaggerate the frequency of a behaviour or purchase decision, or their brand loyalty. Although panels only require sampling once, maintaining the panel can be both time-consuming and relatively costly as attrition and hence finding replacements can be quite high. In order to allow researchers to obtain more detailed follow-up information from panel members, they are usually paid for their services. At the same time, this can introduce a bias into the panel, since the financial incentive will be more or less important depending on the panelists economic status.

Possibly one of the more interesting advantages of panels is that they can provide significant insight into non-response as well as non-participation or decisions not to purchase a given product.

Related Readings (link to Library. Lapage, W.F., Ch. 40 in Ritchie and Goeldner; Kumar, V., Aaker, D.A. & Day, G.S. (1999). Essentials of Marketing Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)

The Nominal Group Technique

Originally developed as an organizational planning technique by Delbecq, Van de Ven and Gustafson in 1971, the nominal group technique is a consensus planning tool that helps prioritize issues.

In the nominal group technique, participants are brought together for a discussion session led by a moderator. After the topic has been presented to session participants and they have had an opportunity to ask questions or briefly discuss the scope of the topic, they are asked to take a few minutes to think about and write down their responses. The session moderator will then ask each participant to read, and elaborate on, one of their responses. These are noted on a flipchart. Once everyone has given a response, participants will be asked for a second or third response, until all of their answers have been noted on flipcharts sheets posted around the room.

Once duplications are eliminated, each response is assigned a letter or number. Session participants are then asked to choose up to 10 responses that they feel are the most important and rank them according to their relative importance. These rankings are collected from all participants, and aggregated. For example:

Overall measure

Response Participant 1 Participant 2 Participant 3 Importance
A ranked 1st ranked 2nd ranked 2nd 5 = ranked 1st
B ranked 3rd ranked 1st ranked 3rd 7 = ranked 3rd
C ranked 2nd ranked 3rd ranked 1st 6 = ranked 2nd
D ranked 4th  ranked 4th ranked 4th 12 = ranked 4th

Sometimes these results are given back to the participants in order to stimulate further discussion, and perhaps a readjustment in the overall rankings assigned to the various responses. This is done only when group consensus regarding the prioritization of issues is important to the overall research or planning project.

The nominal group technique can be used as an alternative to both the focus group and the Delphi techniques. It presents more structure than the focus group, but still takes advantage of the synergy created by group participants. As its name suggests, the nominal group technique is only "nominally" a group, since the rankings are provided on an individual basis.


Related Readings (Ritchie, J.R.B., E.L., Ch. 42 in Ritchie and Goeldner)

Delphi Technique

Originally developed by the RAND Corporation in 1969 for technological forecasting, the Delphi Method is a group decision process about the likelihood that certain events will occur. Today it is also used for environmental, marketing and sales forecasting.

The Delphi Method makes use of a panel of experts, selected based on the areas of expertise required. The notion is that well-informed individuals, calling on their insights and experience, are better equipped to predict the future than theoretical approaches or extrapolation of trends. Their responses to a series of questionnaires are anonymous, and they are provided with a summary of opinions before answering the next questionnaire. It is believed that the group will converge toward the "best" response through this consensus process. The midpoint of responses is statistically categorized by the median score. In each succeeding round of questionnaires, the range of responses by the panelists will presumably decrease and the median will move toward what is deemed to be the "correct" answer.

One distinct advantage of the Delphi Method is that the experts never need to be brought together physically, and indeed could reside anywhere in the world. The process also does not require complete agreement by all panelists, since the majority opinion is represented by the median. Since the responses are anonymous, the pitfalls of ego, domineering personalities and the "bandwagon or halo effect" in responses are all avoided. On the other hand, keeping panelists for the numerous rounds of questionnaires is at times difficult. Also, and perhaps more troubling, future developments are not always predicted correctly by iterative consensus nor by experts, but at times by "off the wall" thinking or by "non-experts".

Related Readings (link to Library. Moeller, G.H. & Shafer, E.L., Ch. 39 in Ritchie and Goeldner , and Taylor, R.E. & Judd, L.L. (1994). "Delphi Forecasting" in Witt, S.F. & Moutinho, L. Tourism Marketing and Management Handbook. London: Prentice Hall)