Over the past two years, the growth of online sample has been extraordinary, almost too good to be true. Cint purchased Lucid for 1.1 billion dollars. Prodage acquired Pollfish for an undisclosed amount, rumored at $70 to $85 million. There is a lot of money flowing into the industry right now, but the challenge is determining whether or not the growth is artificial, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, consumers stayed home for two years, turning to the Internet for everything from food and clothing to streaming media services. As a result, e-commerce experienced record highs, spiking 48%, and streaming viewership surged.
“Lockdown stocks” like Facebook (Meta), Amazon, and Peloton enjoyed record-breaking stock prices, and cryptocurrencies rose in popularity.
But the world is re-opening, and fears about the pandemic are waning. People are yearning for in-person experiences, so they’re getting out – back to work, school, gyms, concerts, and restaurants. Beloved pandemic pastimes like Peloton, who is coping with slowing demand for its indoor stationary bikes, are just trying to survive.
Similarly, requests for online sample spiked during the height of the pandemic. When the pandemic canceled in-person focus groups, the online sample industry benefited from the shift to virtual environments. Consumers had more time to join online panels and take surveys at home. As in-person research activities resume, will we see a slowdown in online requests for sample or in survey participation?
Lucid successfully launched the first programmatic exchange sample platform in the market, which spurred competition as new entrants rushed to copy the model. The biggest companies created their own exchange platform or are leasing the exchange software to create their own exchange platform. This process has become known as ResTech (Research Technology). But post-pandemic normalization of the industry could jeopardize the future of these innovations. Not many companies are focused on maintaining actual panels, which are the bread and butter of online sample. The cost of panels has increased, especially those with a multicultural focus. Hispanics panels are very costly and don’t fit the exchange model at the average CPI rate.
So, it’s possible that the online sample industry is rethinking its dependence on panels, that they are leaning into exchange platforms and survey programming instead. However, panels need people to generate responses and aggregate data. This year, 2022, as we start to emerge from the pandemic, will be very telling. We'll see if panels are still relevant or if exchange platforms will be the main means of sample collection.