Building a Brand One Community Panel at a Time

Aug 07, 2012

Sometimes your most engaged customers can tell you the most about what to do next. And, as Burt’s Bees has found, building a community panel of those loyal fans can pay major benefits. At the recent Shopper Insights conference presented by IIR USA, Joy Steinberg of Burt’s Bees and Ellie Hutton of Vision Critical discussed their efforts.

Burt’s Bees, started in 1984 and acquired by Clorox in 2007, is best known for its natural skin care line and products such as lip balm. The community panel is called Burt’s Buzz and consists of 1400 recruits from the company’s newsletter subscribers. The panel is unpaid, although there is a monthly drawing for prizes and members are considered "special advisors" to the company. Panelists participate in up to four studies per month, which enable Burt’s Bees to build an in-depth relationship with these high-value consumers, respond quickly to hot issues and use a diverse set of tools in working with panelists. The panel was initially recruited via a special survey and those who were chosen for the group also receive behind the scenes access to goings-on at Burt’s Bees.

Other activities participated in by the group include discussions, visual surveys, photo sharing, collage and digital journals. Insights gained from these activities and surveys are used for reference purposes in Burt’s leadership meetings and to bring the voice of the consumer to the business.

Specific examples of panel use include qualitative studies to see how core consumers view the brand’s corporate responsibility strategy; learning about consumer segments via photo uploads, journals, and storytelling; claims positioning surveys; ad testing surveys; brand perception studies that are both visual and written; path-to-purchase studies that evaluate consumers’ attitudes and experiences in pre-shop and in-store environments. (Burt’s Bees learned here that variety and in-stock issues are critical).

For Burt’s Bees, the community panel has allowed the business to be much more engaged with core shoppers than one-off studies or focus groups. It has also added a step on the back end, which involves following up with brand managers and other execs to see if they are using the information they were provided, how they are using it, and if they’re not using it, why not.

Community panels also have practical application as part of the company’s focus on building close and collaborative relationships with retailers. Findings are incorporated into the brand’s overall strategies and activation plans and shared as a part of the normal partnership process.

Discussion Questions: Can community panels provide a unique way of engaging with consumers? How do the benefits compare with other forms of research? Can community panels work for retailers, as well?

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10 Comments on "Building a Brand One Community Panel at a Time"

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Joan Treistman

There are retailers out there already benefiting from community panels. Direct access to shoppers who want to share their opinions, attitudes and behaviors is a real advantage for marketers. It provides candid, up-to-the-minute perspectives on existing and new products, services, promotions and advertising.

Burt’s Bees is smart to follow up with their internal staff. Oftentimes panels are underutilized and/or management forgets to incorporate that special consumer knowledge into their strategies and tactics.

Max Goldberg

Community panels are one way for manufacturers to gain customer insights, and they could be just as easily used by retailers. That said, it’s important for retailers and brands to hear from all consumer segments, not just regular users. Too often, regular users constitute a hallelujah chorus. Light-users and non-users, within the target demographic, should also be consulted. This will provide a more well-rounded picture of the product or retailer.

Ken Lonyai

Community panels are an excellent way to build brand evangelists and keep in touch with the market. In 2012, the word “unique” does not apply though. Clearly insights, feedback, and product ideas are a great benefit from such a group of people, but panelists are likely skewed in favor of the brand already — presuming that their thoughts represent the greater market would be a danger.

Smart retailers can do the same as long as they keep the lines drawn between community and promotion.

Zel Bianco

Community panels are a great method of consumer feedback providing manufacturers with insights such as buyer comments, shopping habits and feedback. It’s a give and take between the manufacturer and consumer — the manufacturer provides the consumer with coupons, drawings, etc. and receives consumers’ insights — and the consumer receives positive feelings towards a brand by being part of the brand’s planning, process as well as the coupons and drawings. Community panels could certainly work for retailers as shoppers can provide them with invaluable insights through their feedback and comments. Couldn’t this be incorporated into retailer loyalty programs?

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

In-depth knowledge of consumers is necessary for deep insight and understanding. Community panels are not the only way to achieve that goal, but they are certainly one important way to achieve the goal. Community panels can work for any product or retailer for which there is a large enough group of consumers who are willing to be part of and to participate in a community.

justin tyme
5 years 2 months ago

I actively participate in the Dollar General customer panel. I feel that my input is especially appreciated and taken seriously. TJX used to have one for A.J. Wright which I actively participated in as well. I guess they never listened to the solicited input or especially cared about how their loyal customer base felt about the store and selection. The loss of A.J. Wright has left a void in the off-price sector. Bad move for the bargain consumer.

Mark Heckman

I know of several retailers that have standing customer panels. They leverage these shoppers for a variety of opportunities and they not only serve as an inexpensive means to solicit customer feedback, but also can serve as a means of instilling a sense of deeper loyalty with these shoppers who care enough about your business to engage.

As a retailer, I have used panels both quantitatively for quick response surveys and qualitatively for focus groups or store level panels. Online surveys, while they still must be designed and analyzed by pros, are an excellent way to do tracking or trend studies, without breaking the often very meager research budget.

On the qualitative side, conducting in-person group sessions does require someone on staff to have moderator expertise and as with any focus group, over reacting to small sample sizes has its risks. Nonetheless, community panels are truly relatively inexpensive ways to keep all levels of the business in touch with the customer and their ever-changing needs.

Brian Numainville

While not the only method to engage with consumers, these community panels are good tools to hear from the panelists, whether primary shoppers (in most cases) or from a panel who might use a range of competitive products. It is important to carefully consider the composition of the panel and factor that in when listening to insights.

Ryan Mathews

Of course they can.

Instead of feeding focus groups stale sandwiches and doughnuts and listening to them tell you what they think you want to hear — why not build relationships, community and get closer-to-real feedback from actual product users?

Ralph Jacobson

Social channel panels are good, inexpensive ways to keep a pulse on both retail and CPG brands. Of course, consumer emotion always enters into commentary, just like with old-fashioned face-to-face focus groups.

There are several great case studies on how this process helps in new product development and introduction. It also helps retailers with assortment planning and merchandising. Use it to its fullest extent!


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