What is a Nielsen Panel?

March 12, 2019 Andy Dubickas, VP Global Solutions, Nielsen

The always-on consumer shops, works and plays online. Marketers need always-on measurement solutions to get audience insights in this cross-platform and digital world. Nielsen panels provide crucial data that fuels this understanding.

Read on to learn more about panels and why these consistently high-quality data sources remain vital to marketers.

Is Panel Data Needed in the Digital Era?

Every one of us adds to our digital footprints each day and those footprints can help companies create content, products and experiences that are in line with our interests.

But those footprints aren’t complete. Companies in all industries continue to need a valid, representative, consistent and comprehensive view of audiences. Accurate data is the linchpin of marketing measurement solutions.

Many companies build their own data sets, combining customer data with performance data from their marketing and advertising campaigns. But many companies—especially CPG manufacturers—don’t have first-party data because their products are sold through retailers.

These companies must enrich the data they have with third-party sources via partners and vendors. One of the mainstays of data enrichment is a product that’s literally been used for decades: the Nielsen Panel.

For nearly 100 years, Nielsen has provided businesses around the world with critical insight into consumer behavior—and panels make this possible. Panels now include consumers in more than 250,000 households in over 25 countries.

This information has become increasingly important in a digital era in which vast quantities of data are becoming less trackable, more private, and more secure.

What Is a Panel?

A panel is a group of people chosen to represent a larger universe of people. Since it’s not feasible to measure everyone in a specific geographic area or who has the same traits—race, gender, age—sophisticated sampling and statistics ensure that the group is representative of the larger population.

Nielsen’s data scientists create miniature populations that mimic the behavior of larger populations. In that way, marketers can accurately understand the behavior of an audience without actually engaging with each and every person in that larger group.

The first step of panel-building is tapping into large, statistically reliable data sets for a specific market. For example, U.S. Census data, U.N. population stats for Melbourne, or government-issued population totals for the various suburbs within Shanghai.

From there, data scientists use random, probability-based sampling to isolate much smaller populations of the total. Once they have a smaller dataset, they use statistical modeling, weighting and other scientific techniques to ensure that the characteristics of the sample accurately reflect those of the larger population.

By isolating a representative sample and modeling it to mirror the behavior of the larger group, marketers can learn the behavior of their target audience. Few people would argue that having less data is better than having more data. But not all data is equal and more data is not automatically more useful.

Think of scientists studying a lake. To learn more about it, they take a small water sample because it shares the same traits as the rest of the water. There’s no need to analyze the whole lake to understand what’s going on.

The always-on consumer shops, works and plays online.

How Can Marketers Use Panel Data?

Marketers use panel data to understand consumer behavior. It provides an accurate picture of how consumers are engaging with marketing and media and what products they’re buying.

This allows marketers to overcome data gaps. For example, when you change the TV channel, the set-top box or content provider knows the channel changed and the address for the house that the TV is located in, but it doesn’t know WHO changed the channel.

That’s where data science comes in, particularly for digital channels, where measurement tools such as code readers, meters and watermarks aren’t applicable.

For example, a marketer knows if an online ad is clicked, but may find it difficult to know exactly who clicked it. But with the data from Nielsen panels as a foundation, marketers can take advantage of modeling and calibration techniques to gain an accurate representation of the behavior in the larger data set.

These panels are recognized as valid, comprehensive and reliable. The media industry considers Nielsen’s TV panel in the U.S. the gold standard. In fact, this data is the currency that the TV industry uses for buying and selling advertising.

A Brief History of Panels

Originally, panels were used for direct measurement of traditional media. The panel was recruited to represent the media universe, panelist behavior was recorded (via diary or electronic means), and that usage was projected to the universe to create ratings. That methodology is still used in TV measurement.

As consumption moved to digital devices and dynamically served advertising, performance measurement became increasingly difficult. Even in a world of big data, proper audience measurement requires an observable sample of the population in order to be confident in the who. Panels provide the valid, representative, consistent and comprehensive view of audiences that marketers need.

What Data Is Collected?

Panels need to represent many different populations and communities and include a wide variety of people, backgrounds and experiences. Homes for TV and audio ratings are scientifically selected and volunteers can sign up for consumer panels or digital panels.

Nielsen collects a range of information from and about panel participants:

  • Name, address, and the names of other members of the household
  • Demographics such as education, age and ethnicity (where allowed by local law)
  • Viewing and/or buying behavior
  • Third-party data about media consumption patterns and demographics

People who work for Nielsen, their immediate family members, domestic partners, or members of their household, as well as people who work in the media (or anything related to it), cannot be panelists.

Protecting Panelist Privacy

Nielsen protects panelists’ privacy and never uses personally identifiable information (such as name, address, or email address) to advertise, promote or market third-party goods or services directly to panelists. Data aggregation and other methods ensure that an individual panelist cannot be identified in client reports. Panelists review detailed information about how Nielsen collects and uses their data before they decide to participate.

Nielsen also creates scientific reports based on modeled information. “Modeled information” is developed based on demographic and behavioral characteristics such as gender, age, TV watching habits, and websites visited to predict what people with similar or matching characteristics would watch or buy. Nielsen takes precautions to ensure this data cannot be reverse-engineered to identify a panelist.

Data for a Digital Era

Nielsen researches what consumers watch and buy as well as their preferences and behaviors. In a digital world, delivery of accurate, stable and accredited data takes on increasing importance. High quality panels help marketers gain insight into what consumers want and need so they can get their marketing in front of audiences that matter most.

Learn More

Download our ebook to cut through the hype and learn the differences between key measurement approaches: Untangling Attribution’s Web of Confusion: A Primer for Marketers

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