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Suggested Citation:"Summary ." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2013. Use of Market Research Panels in Transit. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/22563.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary ." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2013. Use of Market Research Panels in Transit. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/22563.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary ." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2013. Use of Market Research Panels in Transit. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/22563.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary ." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2013. Use of Market Research Panels in Transit. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/22563.
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USE OF MARKET RESEARCH PANELS IN TRANSIT Market research panels offer the potential of fast, inexpensive market research, but if not designed correctly, their benefits can come at the expense of quality results. This synthesis defines the various types of market research panels, identifies critical issues that a researcher needs to consider when engaging in market research and panel surveys, and provides examples of successful market research panel programs. The transit market researcher will understand common pitfalls to be avoided and learn successful techniques that will maximize research dollars without jeopardizing the quality of the data or the validity of the results. Four themes emerged from the review. • Flexibility—Market research panels are a flexible tool that can be successfully applied to a wide variety of transit research needs, including focused discussions, in-depth travel behavior studies, satisfaction tracking, and brief, short-turnaround “hot topic” surveys. • Benefits—Once developed, a panel provides a mechanism for collecting survey results quickly and inexpensively to support daily decision making. Agency panels also boost public relations by demonstrating that agencies are listening to their customers. • Limitations—Panel surveys are often low-cost because they rely on online recruitment and surveying. Online surveys are not representative of the general population or of transit riders, and should not be used when precision is required in the research results. • Paradigm shift—The evolution in communications modes, such as smart phones and social media, combined with a dramatic reduction in the number of households with land- line telephones, has created a paradigm shift in market research methods. The industry is grappling with these changes, and it is in the best interests of the transit industry to closely monitor this sector’s activities. The synthesis was conducted using a literature review of market research and market research panels; an industry survey of transportation agencies on use of market research and panels; three agency panel survey profiles; and four full case examples. Market research, including the use of panels, is an established practice with an extensive body of literature. The literature review takes advantage of this depth, examining market research and panel techniques through industry publications, websites of market research trade organizations, and articles on panels, survey sampling, and online research. An industry survey was sent to 38 transit and transportation agencies known to conduct market research to solicit insights on the use of market research panels. The respondents included 29 transit agencies, one metro- politan planning organization, and one state department of transportation, a response rate of 76%. The survey was used to identify the seven case examples agencies. The market research process has four basic steps: (1) planning (identifying goals of the project); (2) designing the research (selecting a sampling plan, data collection method, and questionnaire development); (3) implementing the research; and (4) analyzing data and report- ing results. A market research panel is a group of persons selected for the purpose of provid- ing data related to the analysis of some aspect of a group or area; as such, panel research is a sampling technique, and falls within step 2, designing the research. The sampling technique used to develop the panel is critical to obtaining quality results and determines when the data can be used with confidence. SUMMARY

2 Conventional surveys implicitly assume that respondents are selected through random sampling techniques and that survey results are representative of the population with a cer- tain range of precision. Random digit-dial telephone sampling has been the go-to technique for more than 50 years. However, the number of households in the United States without landline telephones continues to decline—more than 30% in 2011. Consequently, market researchers must make more calls in an attempt to find a sample that represents the general population. Random representative sampling is cited as a prime factor in the increasing cost of and time needed for conducting traditional market research, leading more researchers to use non-random or convenience sampling techniques, where the sampling plan and survey respondents do not adhere to the underlying requirements for a random sample. The most commonly used convenience sampling technique is Internet recruiting. Although adjustments can be made for some of the error and bias associated with convenience sampling, online recruitment, and online surveying, limitations on the data dictate that results should be used for concept formation rather than for estimates of the population. The traditional definition of a true panel is a group of respondents measured repeatedly over time with respect to the same variables. An omnibus panel is defined as a group of respondents who are measured repeatedly over time but on variables that change each time. True panels are not used very frequently in transit market research because of the high cost of developing and maintaining them. Most panels are omnibus panels, designed to speed up the market research process while reducing costs. Market research vendors have developed on-going online access panels that an agency can buy into for a specific project on an as-needed basis. Omnibus panels developed by an organization solely for its own use are called client or in-house panels. The most recent adaptation of market research panels is to create an online research community using a social media format (e.g., Facebook or LinkedIn), where panel members complete surveys, share ideas, and interact as they would on a public social media website but around topics provided by the transportation agency. An industry survey of transit and transportation agencies was conducted into current market research practices and experiences with panel surveys. Although panel survey research is not used extensively in the transit industry, interest in the methodology is increasing. Of the 31 agencies completing the survey, 10 had experience implementing a research panel and nine more were either considering or in the process of implementing a panel study. The 19 agencies that had either implemented or were considering a research panel provided perspective on: • Panel survey topics—The most common topics were rider attitudes, customer satisfac- tion, marketing and message development, awareness of transit issues, public input on planning projects, and evaluating the effects of agency actions. • Benefits of panels—The primary benefits were the agency’s ability to conduct research at a moment’s notice and to target specific markets. • Concerns with panels—The primary concern was that the panel may not be representa- tive of the target population. • Use of vendors—Responses ran the full range, from having conducted the panel research completely in-house to having contracted out all tasks to a vendor. Only one agency used an existing vendor’s online access panel; the other nine agencies developed an in-house panel recruited to meet specific agency goals. The industry survey was used to identify four case example agencies: Regional Trans- portation District (Denver); Minnesota Department of Transportation; Metropolitan Trans- portation Authority, New York City; and Washington State Transportation Commission/ Washington State Ferries. An overview of the structure of each case example is provided, demonstrating the wide variety of ways in which panels have been implemented in the trans- portation field. • Regional Transportation District (Denver) recruits 16 volunteer panel members annu- ally through the agency website. The panel meets four times over the course of the year

3 in focus-group style meetings, providing qualitative input on issues ranging from ticket vending machines to agency image and branding. The program is implemented com- pletely in-house. • Minnesota recruits 600 panel members online paralleling the demographics of state, 300 from the Minneapolis–St. Paul urbanized area and 300 from the rest of the state. Panel members belong to a closed online research community, with a variety of online activities and weekly surveys. The community is run by an outside vendor in partner- ship with Minnesota Department of Transportation staff. • Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s panel was made up of 1,500 members recruited through random-digit-dial telephoning to represent the population based on demographics and location. Between 12 and 15 panel members were surveyed by telephone every day of the year, except on six major holidays, providing continuous feedback from the customer. The program was implemented using both in-house and consultant resources. The 15-year panel research program was recently ended for bud- getary reasons. • Washington State Ferries currently has approximately 6,500 online panel members recruited through on-board surveys and recruiting posters with a web address. Surveys are conducted online every one or two months. The panel is open to anyone who wishes to register on the website. The program is managed almost entirely by a consultant team. The case examples and literature review provided insights into implementing successful panel research, from the perspective of an implementing agency and from a general market research perspective. Following are insights drawn from the perspective of agencies imple- menting panel research. • Flexibility—Panels can be used to collect information on any topic, using any type of research, including telephone surveys, on-line surveys, and discussion and focus groups. • Speed—Panels provide a readily accessible sample of respondents, allowing for faster, cheaper implementation of research studies. • Cost—Panels can reduce the cost of implementing individual studies, but building and maintaining an in-house panel can be expensive. Although one agency had no vendor costs and limited staff time investment, most programs reported initial start-up and annual costs of more than $100,000 annually, in addition to 0.25 to 0.5 full-time equivalent employees to administer the program. • Non-random sampling—Panels that were recruited without adhering to principles of sampling theory are not to be used when an estimate of the population is expected or needed. • Panel members with an agenda—Open membership panels are especially prone to attracting a high percentage of participants with a vested interest in the outcome of the research. Increasing the panel size dilutes the impact of these members, but at the cost of additional recruitment and retention. • Communication reduces attrition—Researchers have an expectation that frequent communication will cause panel members to drop out of the program. Agencies discov- ered that on-going engagement with panel members keeps them motivated and reduces attrition. • Public relations value—Whether a panel has a specifically recruited closed member- ship program or allows anyone to join, agencies cited a public relations benefit from the public’s knowing that the agency was actively seeking and listening to its customers. A second set of insights related to the state of the practice of market research. • Paradigm shift—The electronic age has produced profound changes in how society communicates. Landlines have given way to smart phones, and the Internet is becoming the center of business and communication. Traditional survey sampling is becoming increasingly difficult and costly, especially in comparison to online survey techniques. Sampling theory has not yet been developed to address issues with online panel recruit- ment and surveying. Until a theoretical basis is established so that online research

4 accurately represents the population, the market research industry advises using online panel research only when the results are for testing ideas and concepts, not for precise estimates of the population. • Industry guidance—Developing and implementing a panel research program to provide appropriate and reliable results requires a current and in-depth understanding of market research principles. The market research industry has created resources and guidelines to assist researchers in purchasing and developing quality panel research programs. Most of the advances in panel research have come from professional survey research orga- nizations in the United States and Europe. That research need not be repeated by the transit industry; however, four gaps in information specific to the transit industry are identified here: • Monitoring market research industry activities—The market research industry has established an extensive “research-on-research” program related to online panel survey techniques. Transit professionals would benefit from the development of a com- munication tool for disseminating the results of advances in panel and online research techniques. • Special populations—The transit industry has both a requirement and an obligation to hear from existing and potential riders. Research is needed on ways to include the elderly, persons with disabilities, minorities, low-income households, and persons with limited English proficiency or low reading and writing comprehension in agency panel and customer research. • Multi-frame sampling—Survey researchers have been moving away from single source sampling (e.g., online surveys only) to dual-frame or multi-frame sampling (online sur- veys supplemented with on-vehicle surveys). Additional research is needed to understand how transit agencies can use multi-frame sampling to improve customer surveying. • Legal and ethical issues—Human subjects laws, privacy acts, and freedom of infor- mation acts all have implications for market research in the public sector, especially online panel research. Transit agencies need guidance to ensure that all legal and ethical requirements are met when establishing market research panels.

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TRB’s Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) Synthesis 105: Use of Market Research Panels in Transit describes the various types of market research panels, identifies issues that researchers should be aware of when engaging in market research and panel surveys, and provides examples of successful market research panel programs.

The report also provides information about common pitfalls to be avoided and successful techniques that may help maximize research dollars without jeopardizing the quality of the data or validity of the results.

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