The Online Research Business in Asia

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The Asia Research annual review of the online research industry in Asia

Gone are the days of ‘will it work?’ or ‘is it representative?’ – online research is now an integral part of the market research industry in Asia.

In Asia Research’s annual review of the online research business in Asia, we undertook interviews with Ludo Milet of GMI, James Rogers from Toluna, Martin Tomlinson of Research Now, Megumi Mori from SSI, Aaron Sun of IPanelOnline, and Bruce Wells from Vision Critical. This identified what have been the key developments in the online research world in Asia in the last year, and what we can look forward to in the next.



The common themes in 2012 are the growing importance of mobile research, the emergence of community panels, and the opportunities with social media.


While mobile research is not new, the increase in ownership of smart phone or “features enabled” and data plans, means that for many consumers the mobile phone is now their main connection with the internet. Thanks to the advancement of mobile technology and the affordability of this technology, opportunities for mobile research in emerging markets look exciting.

Currently there are no hard statistics on the proportion of online surveys being conducted through mobiles. Megumi Mori, Managing Director of SSI for Asia, comments that while there are relatively few surveys designed specifically for mobiles, many online surveys (designed for completion through PCs) are being completed through mobiles or tablets.

Research Now has developed an application specific to mobile research. Martin Tomlinson, Sales Director for SEA and China, comments that in the past few months, around 25% of their local enquiries are now for mobile specific research, and these are typically for media and retail surveys, those where knowing the location of respondent is important in the survey objectives. In addition, this technology can be used for traditional street intercept research where interviewers using tablets can have the survey data immediately uploaded and location monitored in real time using geo-location tracking.

However technical challenges are still abound. IPanelOnline, founded in 2004 with multiple panels in over 20 counties and one of the longest serving panel companies in Asia comments that there are 500-600 different models of cell phones in China meaning there can be compatibility issues for some surveys.\’

Similarly, while social media is a good opportunity for online research, there are still some challenges in being able to fully commercialise this opportunity.

Research Now is providing access to social media research through games like FarmVille, which is a simulation game and games like it, mean that people can be recruited to surveys, for which they will receive credits in a virtual world currency. Samples can be pre-profiled, and this is an effective way of accessing the youth market which can be harder to find through traditional recruitment means.

Earlier in 2012, there was a lot of hype about Google Consumer Surveys. Some expected this to take the industry by storm, but one of the fundamental issues about Google Consumer Surveys is that it relies on thousands of different consumers answering perhaps just one question, meaning surveys are literally ‘pieced together’ from tens of thousands of different respondents. However there is some agreement that Google Consumer Surveys has applications for omnibus type surveys, where you are literally asking just one or two questions, and the industry will still be waiting to see what the giants of Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn might do in the online research world.

\"\"While there are no major developments expected from these Internet giants in the next year, in the longer term their influence on the research world is likely to grow as they seek to find new ways of generating revenue for their shareholders.

Panel quality raises its head again

Panel quality has been a topic of discussion for many years, and at least among the more established and reputable online panel companies, panel quality is no longer an issue. These companies have all put in place very strong quality control measures and processes such that these days panel quality, such as digital finger printing (ensuring the same surveys cannot be completed twice from the same PC), survey length monitoring, and other in-built quality controls are now hygiene factors. IPanelOnline has developed software called I-Guard that ensures that the respondent is not speeding through the survey and also not taking too long or being too careless. Panelists also have to provide a scanned copy of their identify card to be on their panels.

Megumi Mori from SSI says that panel quality should also be about ensuring representativeness of the sample, and to help achieve this they blend panels with river sampling and accessing respondents through partnerships, e.g. membership bases of airlines to access more affluent consumers.

This year, there is a lot of talk about the “panel aggregators” – these being online panel companies who do not manage their own panels but instead buy online research on the open market. With it they boast access to some of the largest panels in the world by simply adding up the number of panellists they can access from a multitude of vendors! The business model is based on the notion that research agencies do not have the time to source the lowest prices in the market for online research or those with sufficient coverage of the markets they want to research. The “aggregators”, who might be just a few individuals working in small offices, do this job for the research agency but since they work with very low margins they will tend to source the very lowest price vendors, and often with doubtful quality.

This problem has been compounded by some of the larger agencies setting up dedicated panel buying departments and procuring the lowest cost online research in a manner that could undermine the integrity of their online surveys. Indeed some more established panel companies have observed far more loyalty to the big brand panel companies among the boutique agencies who are not buying panels purely on price.

James Rogers, Managing Director of Toluna, says that the industry sees stiff price competition from aggregators. In response to this the leading panel companies have promoted their ability to deliver on projects, their resources, and their service standards. Raising brand awareness and delivering thought leadership pieces also helps the more reputable panel companies to sustain their market position.

Community Panels

\"\"Another area that became more prominent in 2012 is the rise of proprietary or “community” panels – these are panels established for specific clients among their own customer base. This relies on customers opting in to become a consumer panellist exclusively for the client. Typically these are consumers that are more interested in or have high involvement in the category, and therefore are not deemed representative of all customers. However, this is used to clients’ advantage since these consumers are those able to provide more informed and enlightened feedback to the client in the same way as a lively buy levaquin 500mg focus group or expert depth interview.

Bruce Wells, Managing Director of Vision Critical specialising in community panels, comments that community panels are highly effective for all sorts of customer centric research including ideation, product & concept development, communication testing, U&A’s as well as lifestyle and engagement exploration. It has also been used for ‘crisis management’, e.g. where negative publicity of the brand through social media has been assessed through community panel surveys to understand the true extent of this negative publicity and how best to handle it.

Community panels have been adopted by a range of sectors including media, FMCG, ICT, travel & leisure, retail and financial services. Bruce comments “the bias associated with community panels actually provides richer insights, and if a concept fails through a community panel the concept is likely to stop there!”

Many clients are now turning to this solution, and will tap their panellists very regularly with much shorter surveys. In the US, where traditional access panels are struggling to obtain even 5% response rates and where panel companies are literally ‘running out of population’, according to the GRIT report (the GreenBook Research Industry Trends Report) community panels are now the fastest growing research method in the US. While it cannot be assumed that Asia will always follow the West, Bruce comments that community panels work well in an environment where social media is very popular, and that is certainly the case in many Asia Pacific countries.

The success of community panels is that consumers get more engaged in the survey and research process, and are generally not motivated to take part in the survey for financial gain. The survey platforms are branded in the clients own livery and with the initial upfront investment the site can be made highly engaging and user-friendly.

Bruce comments that the adoption of the community panels requires some change of mind set from the end client. “Traditional procurement (of market research) has been very transactional whereas community panels are more of a holistic approach to research where there is an upfront investment, but where the ROI is achieved throughout the year by undertaking many more surveys”. Bruce goes on to say “such an approach appeals to more senior research buyers who can see this as a strategic investment in research”.

The other benefit of community panels is that you can build longitudinal analysis by examining the history of responses from the same panellist over a period, and since you have captured all the demographic profiling data of the respondent up front, these do not need to be asked in each survey meaning more ‘research time’ is spend on asking the pertinent questions.

\"\"Improving respondent engagement is also the idea behind ‘gamification’ of online surveys. This is where online surveys are effectively turned into video games where choices are made not by ticking boxes, but in more entertaining ways of giving answers. GMI has been at the forefront of online survey gamification, and have won several awards for this. Ludo Milet, Managing Director of GMI says that the application of gamification required clients to have a more open brief for research and where you want more open-ended feedback. Ludo comments “Through gamification we see a lot less drop out, fewer neutral scores and less straightlining.”

But despite the emergence of these new and exciting spin offs of online research, the bedrock of the business is still PC based panel surveys, completing the standard 20-30 minute surveys associated with traditional U&A studies.

Ludo Milet comments that their core competencies are still the main drivers that define their lead in online research. Ludo comments “in 2012 we have seen more demanding workloads and survey turnaround times. Ability to deliver in a timely manner is now becoming one of the main differentiators of the quality panel companies, and we have concentrated on ensuring we attract and retain the best project managers”.

The opportunities

The panel and online technology companies interviewed in the Asia Research annual review generally see the same opportunities in 2013. There is a view that while online research is more prolific in the more developed markets of Japan, Korea, and Australia (with some of the highest shares to online research globally) these markets will suffer due to stagnant economies and poor economic conditions in their export markets of the US and Europe.

While China and India are very big markets, these are becoming very cut throat with the proliferation of local low cost panel companies and accumulators.

\"\"So many panel companies see the best growth opportunities in SE Asia. In the past the challenges in these markets have been lack of internet penetration, and also the low costs of traditional data collection. However mobile technology will help to get around internet penetration issues and it is a region where social media has huge popularity.

Needless to say, the opportunities in SE Asia will lie in the ability to tap social media, and with young populations in markets such as Indonesia. James Rogers from Toluna, also strong in community panels, comments that Social Media and mobile research lends itself very well to the development of community panels and will also help to increase the coverage of surveys in Asia beyond the main commercial centres.

Ludo Milet from GMI gave another perspective – and that opportunities for further growth in online research in Asia will be partly driven by fragmentation of research agencies. With more and more boutique agencies starting up and new companies coming into Asia, they will turn to the online panel companies to provide them the data collection infrastructure they need to conduct Pan Asian data collection.


Asia Research has been reviewing the online research industry for the last five years. The issues surrounding the industry have evolved from that of representativeness of panellists, panel quality, and then new ways of reaching and engaging people through technology and clever survey design.

This year panel quality have been raised again through the emergence of the ‘accumulator panel companies’ selling on price, and the procurement practices of some of the larger agencies.

Mobile research is talked about more, but this is by no means a new technology. While there is greater use of this form of data collection, researchers and buyers of research are still struggling to keep interview lengths down to something manageable to time poor consumers on the move. The question is whether the market researchers are ready to adapt to these new methods of data collection and provide the advice and in a sense have the assertiveness to ensure that the end clients do not insist on continuing with the traditional 20-30 minute surveys.

What to look out for in 2013?

  • New panel companies specialising in mobile only research
  • Further growth in community panels including new technology to tap social media
  • More aggregators and pressure on pricing
  • More clients ‘going direct’ to panel companies, especially where community panels are used



Asia Research in collaboration with BDRC Asia