It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 10 years since reader panels first appeared at the Toronto Star.

It’s truly one of the easiest and lowest cost research channels available for media organisations. We hear so much these days about Big Data and its use to drive more online traffic, but sometimes we forget about the power of simple surveys.

Ask people what they like, what they want, purchase intent, test new products and services: the uses are endless and the cost is minimal.

Minimal compensation is offered to Toronto Star panelists, yet they willingly offer their opinions.
Minimal compensation is offered to Toronto Star panelists, yet they willingly offer their opinions.

Our Toronto Star Advisors panel started with just over 3,000 members in 2007. And while we’ve experienced some churn over the years, we have been able to recruit new members to keep a panel of a reasonable size.

Currently we have roughly 4,000 active and engaged members. To replenish lost members, we send out an annual e-mail to all print subscribers. The response is always quick and virtually effortless.

Strong reader engagement for Star subscribers is reflected in survey participation rates. We consistently hit rates as high as 40%, with just over 30% the norm since the panel inception. The only compensation offers are five monthly draw prizes of C$50. Each panelist gets a ballot for each survey they complete.

With the odd exception, we try to keep the surveys simple. Surveys are designed to be completed in less than 15 minutes. It’s important to hone questions and survey techniques, including the use of drag-and-drop tools to encourage engagement.

Over time we have built a second panel to test advertising effectiveness and results. We use Vision Critical to host our reader panel and RAM for advertising-related surveys. In 2016, we conducted over 300 surveys.

I am personally active on a number of panels outside our industry, mostly to better understand the techniques used to engage, satisfy, and retain panelists. I encourage you to sign up for a few online panels; what you learn is worth the effort.

These panels have helped staff at the Star improve our products, launch new products, and price aggressively. Starweek and our New York Times opt-in products probably never would have been launched had it not been for the insights delivered through reader panel engagement.

While our e-book subscription offering known as Star Dispatches ultimately proved unsuccessful, it was the participation of our panel members that helped build out the original business plan. Most recently, we used the panel to test new business offerings regarding consumer products, sample packs, and affinity marketing programs.

Also, we recently used the panel to help guide the newsroom to make better informed content choices, allowing readers to rank content, prioritise areas of content, build out sections they would like to see, and suggest special content offerings.

The panel feedback has been of incredible value in matching our pricing efforts to reader needs. It is certainly easier to raise prices when readers feel heard and content matches their wants.

As newspapers face declining page counts we are using our panel to help in assessing the content mix most valuable to readers. Newsrooms benefit from having actionable reader feedback to help them achieve an effective product with declining resources.

Recently I spoke about innovation at an INMA event in Cape Town. During the session, I stressed the importance of using consumer insights to help guide marketing efforts. Research is an area of our business that should be nurtured, not diminished. Consumer insights across all platforms will be a crucial element as we build the media business model of the future.

If you have a panel, use it aggressively. If you don’t, get started on building one. It’s definitely worth the effort.