Is Your Breakage Model Broken?

By Lisa Wilding-Brown

How Sample Companies Can Create Value from the GRBN’s ENGAGE MR Program

Blog Series: Truth Bombs in Research

A behind-the-scenes discussion on some of the sample industry’s best kept secrets. Join Innovate’s Chief Research Officer, Lisa Wilding-Brown as she exposes some of the industry’s unspoken truths and provides insights for nurturing our most important asset: survey participants.

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Many moons ago, as a fledgling researcher and panel specialist, I managed a loyalty program for one of the industry’s first online research panels. Like most young professionals with a new assignment, I approached this responsibility with incredible levels of enthusiasm and fervor as well as a dash of naiveté.

As a consumer myself, I had participated in loyalty programs in the past and I was under the false impression that my previous experience would provide immeasurable benefits to the program. Unfortunately, my confidence was short lived as I arrived at the realization that I wasn’t really in charge at all, our CFO was. I soon discovered that most reward programs, which theoretically are designed to produce loyalty, are generating the opposite response from consumers. “Why aren’t panelists sticking around?” I asked myself.

The sad reality is that most loyalty programs are designed to enjoy breakage, not loyalty. Breakage is a CFO’s best friend. As panelists participate over time, they typically receive some sort of virtual currency such as points, coins, bucks etc. This currency is banked in a panel account and it only has real value once a panelist reaches a predefined threshold. The goal is to derive enough value from the panelist’s participation where he/she covers the acquisition cost incurred to recruit him/her, accrue incremental revenue from surveys and then lose them before the redemption threshold is realized. This is what breakage dreams are made of! The question remains, who is truly winning in that equation? You guessed it, the CFO and their end of year bonus.

Fast forward 15+ years and many CFOs later. I’m now part of a company that has a completely different view on what loyalty means. Of course, it could be that our self-funded, fiercely independent structure has something to do with it; but for the first time ever I can honestly say that our panel’s loyalty program is healthy and focused on what matters most – the participant!

Creating Value: The GRBN’s ENGAGE MR Program

Innovate MR is proud to be one of seven companies taking part in the inaugural ENGAGE MR program, the objective of which is to enable end clients, agencies, sample companies and tech providers to significantly improve research participant engagement.

The GRBN (Global Research Business Network) has been spearheading the Participant Engagement Initiative for nearly two years. With over 40 participating companies inclusive of sample companies, tech providers, agencies and corporate brands, this initiative set out to inform the research community on best practices and change management strategies to improve the participant experience. To help companies walk the walk, GRBN has set up a coaching program called ENGAGE MR. Participating companies nominate Champions, who are coached on how to apply best practices to improve the research participant experience and increase engagement.

In our quest for speed and agility, the industry has abandoned the most important asset in the research equation – people. Response rates have fallen to abysmal levels, and participant fatigue is at an all-time high. Our shrinking participant universe is the very lifeblood of the industry and yet we’ve sent our participants to the back of the line in favor of better breakage, among other things. Thankfully, the GRBN has shed light on a problem that has been ignored for far too long.

Much of the GRBN’s ongoing research-on-research has been focused on survey design and mobile compatibility. Our mission has been to provide education and to help the research community garner value from best practices training. Our goal is that the survey itself will provide an engaging experience for participants.

However, the responsibility does not solely rest on brands and agencies designing surveys. There is A LOT happening to impact participants’ experience before and after the survey. Many of my sampling peers feel helpless - “We are at the end of the food chain. We can’t control the survey experience,” and they are right, kind of.

Often, the survey is finalized and programmed by the time we are commissioned, but what are we doing to improve the experience prior to survey entry and upon redirection? We are letting CFOs and margin optimization control the experience of our panelists. We are making a bad situation worse. There are several areas that I think need to be addressed to help do our part as sampling purveyors and it starts with addressing incentives.

Address Incentives

Just because you can get some participants to engage for $0.40 doesn’t mean you should. You simply aren’t appealing to a wide enough cross-section of the population to yield truly representative results. Listen, I know firsthand how tough it is out there! CPI compression is a very real thing and it doesn’t leave a lot for us to work with, but you need to:

  • Hold the line on your pricing, don’t make panelists pay the price.
  • Articulate to your clients why it is important to pay more and how low CPIs are impacting quality.

It’s that simple.

Build a loyalty program you can be PROUD of!  At the inception of InnovateMR we made the decision that our panelists had to come first if we wanted to build a successful and viable business. We offer rewards for both qualifying and non-qualifying experiences and our high retention rate is a benefactor of this decision. Rewarding members (even when they don’t qualify) alleviates the desperate and conditioned behaviors that can surface in otherwise low-frequency reward environments.  Our panelists are more likely to perform thoughtfully and honestly since there is no reason not to – they earn each time they participate (regardless of qualification).

Resist the urge to offer a sweepstakes model – sweeps do not produce loyal behaviors and there is plenty of literature to reinforce this fact. Focus on loyalty and build a program that represents this strategy. We implemented the Daily Streak years ago, which allows our panelists to gain a higher earning potential through their demonstrated commitment as well as the reputation they build through quality participation. The results have generated incredible allegiance which allows us to balance our sample frames across both activity and tenure levels; mitigating noise in our clients’ data.

This ‘noise’ is a common challenge for panels that focus solely on overzealous participants or rely on a short recruitment pipeline. Both strategies typically produce highly variable outbound sample which impacts representation and replicability over time.

Examine Breakage

Conduct an analysis on the earn velocity of your panelists. The results may be surprising. It shouldn’t take months or even years to taste the sweet victory of redemption. Excessive breakage will result in excessive attrition. Panelists will not stick around long-term, and as a panel company you will be caught in a vicious cycle of recruitment. A lack of tenure balance can impact quality and produce desperate management strategies which in turn produce overzealous respondent behaviors.

Evaluate Routing

Has your obsession for sample optimization and conversion gotten out of hand?  This is a tough business - it’s easy to forget about your humanity. The fact of the matter is conversion rates are low during the best of times. Routing panelists through screening exercises can help inflate conversion, but let’s be honest, our drive for conversion is getting the best of us.

There are routers out there that will take panelists on a magic carpet ride that literally doesn’t end. This is an easy fix, though. Take a break and set some rules for your routing. Don’t forget that how you route has a very material impact on a client’s data. Be mindful that prioritization and randomizationare best friends here and you need both to build a good routing engine that produces representative and replicable results.

Measure Satisfaction

Develop a feedback mechanism to quantify panelist satisfaction. Distill this information for your clients so they can make improvements. We are in this together and if you aren’t capturing baseline performance and holding clients accountable, participants pay the price.

Other Fun Stuff

Gone are the days when research panels could only be used for research. Provide other activities for panelists to engage in so their experience is better. Industry conversion rates are sub 10% - ask yourself, “would you do anything if you failed 9 times out of 10?” As panel providers, we must offer other activities to offset termination. Fun promotions, contests, quizzes, video, and music can all be incorporated to provide a more well-rounded experience for your panel.

Stand Your Ground and Create Positive Change

While it’s easy to become complacent as sample providers, we must resist. Our power is rooted in education; we are the knowledge centers of the participant experience. Don’t be afraid to push back on your CFO, or your client. Help both parties to understand the value of the participant experience, and why it makes sense to implement healthy retention strategies to achieve long-term success over short-term gains. I have full confidence that we can create very real, material change in our industry. We just need to have transparent dialogue and hold our ground. After all, what has the alternative gotten us?

Next Steps

I’ve gotten a lot out of being a Champion in the GRBN’s ENGAGE MR program and we’re currently working hard at InnovateMR to be amongst the first companies to be awarded the GRBN / Insights Association ENGAGE MR Champion Certificate. Wherever you are in the value chain, if you care about the future of our sector and the importance of participants to that future, I recommend you show your commitment by signing up for the program and working towards your own ENGAGE MR Champion certificate. Please contact Andrew Cannon at GRBN to find out more.

Are you interested in learning more about InnovateMR’s panel management expertise?  Check out our resource library here. Or, better yet, email us today to schedule a discussion with Innovate’s Chief Research Officer and resident panel expert, Lisa Wilding-Brown.