Diary panels

In the methods discussed so far it has been assumed that the research is being carried out on an ad hoc basis, i.e. a 'one-off' piece of research carried out when the decision maker has a particular need for a piece of information. However, there are situations in which it is useful to have a continuous series of measurements of the same piece of data, so that any change can be monitored. This is particularly true, for instance, when the decision maker wishes to discover what effects the decisions have on price changes, advertising campaigns, and so on.

One of the most important sources of continuous data is the diary panel. These panels are usually run by independent market research agencies, who sell the results to interested companies. Increasingly, the media are also setting up diary panels, the results of which are available not only to the media owner, but also to advertisers who use the medium. This service has been run for television for some time, and in recent years diary panels have been set up by a number of local newspapers and by local commercial radio stations. The way in which a diary panel operates is that a representative sample of respondents is selected and visited by an interviewer. If they agree to co-operate they are recruited on to the panel and left a diary or other means of recording data. In this they record their behaviour and sometimes that of other members of the family as well, relevant to the subject of the panel.

Most panel systems are computerized, including one of the largest, Superpanel (Taylor Nelson Sofres. Tel: 020 8967 0007, Fax: 020 8967 4060, E-mail [email protected]), which uses a sample of 15,000 homes providing data on a range of consumer goods. Purchases are scanned using a handheld barcode reader and sent electronically to Taylor Nelson Sofres for central processing and analysis. The obvious advantages of this system are the speed with which information can be generated and the potential for detailed analysis. The service also covers influencing factors in the markets under review._

Nielsen Homescan (Tel: 01865 742 742, Fax: 01865 742 222) is a similar service. Examples of panel data available are those on buying of household consumer goods, personal consumer goods such as toiletries, baby products and motoring products. Examples of the types of data produced from Nielsen's Homescan service are shown in Figure 6.4.

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Figure 6.4: Share of trade analysis. Source: Nielsen Homescan

Several of these services have been established internationally. ETCD/PCP is a Taylor Nelson Sofres usage tracking study covering toiletries and cosmetics. It examines the behaviour of 14,000 individuals.

Further information on this type of service can be found in Chapter 4.

Sometimes specific companies may set up short-term panels to monitor the effects of some particularly important decisions, as in test marketing or launching a new product. The information is usually returned to the research company on a weekly basis, either by mail or electronically, and reports are available of monthly or quarterly data.

Diary panels are an excellent method of providing regular data on a range of behaviours that would otherwise be difficult to collect. This is particularly true for buying of items that are easily forgotten, such as chocolate, confectionery and other small purchases. Impulse is a panel system from Taylor Nelson Sofres examining the behaviour of 5250 individuals in the difficult-to-measure impulse market, which includes products such as ice cream, confectionery and snacks, as well as the national lottery. Diary panels are also extremely valuable in that they are 'single-source' data, i.e. the behaviour of the same individual is monitored over time, and this makes it possible to do some very interesting analyses of 'brand-switching' behaviour, that is, the way in which the same consumers choose different brands or a small range of brands over time. Media-use data is also sometimes recorded, which adds further to the value of the data.

When diary panel data are used in conjunction with retail audits (see Section 6.6.2) they are particularly useful in identifying market segments. Retail audits measure what is being bought; diary panels describe who is buying. Diary panels are also useful in showing differences in response among different consumers, say to price, packaging or advertising changes, and this represents a useful diagnostic tool. Most of the syndicated panel research surveys available are listed in Section 4.3.

There are two main problems in diary panel data. The first is a concern over the behaviour of the members: the 'guinea-pig' effect. Does someone recruited to the television-viewing panel exhibit atypically high viewing levels of documentary and news programmes, rather than soap operas and sports programmes? Tests conducted on this aspect of panel behaviour suggest that it may happen with new panel members, but that the effect quickly wears off. Research companies therefore exclude the first four weeks' diaries of new panel members from analysis. The second problem with diary panels lies in maintaining interest in the membership of the panel since, if the drop-out rate becomes too high, the advantages of continuous data from the same individuals are lost. Research companies operate incentive schemes both to encourage prompt return of data and to keep interest in and involvement with the panel going. These may take the form of regular 'lucky draws' and a points system that can be used to buy items from a catalogue.

Companies that decide to operate a panel of customers or trade intermediaries 'in-house' will need to give careful consideration to the cost and mechanics of operating the panel and handling the data generated, since both can escalate beyond expectations.

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