I’d like to start by defining what stim panels are not. Stim panels are not focus groups. The participants are not there to react to concepts—or ideas. The participants are not necessarily target consumers, although they can be.
What Stim Panels Are
Groups of people recruited for their personal experience—and its relevance to the project. The purpose of a stim panel is to expose your team to perspectives and thinking outside the scope of your own organization. Stim panels are generally semi-structured conversations participants have about their experience. The objective of the discussion guide should be to set loose boundaries for the discussion, to keep it on track, while leaving enough room for participants to wander into new—and possibly exciting—territory. The majority of discussion during the stim panel should take place between the participants.
Here are a few different types of stim panels we use at Ideas To Go, and some things to think about when designing your process:
Life Experience Panel: This might include people with different disease states, cultural backgrounds, family types, or special/specific needs. We recently conducted a project for a company that helps patients with a rare genetic disease. We brought in groups of both patients and their primary caregivers. When we recruited these panels, we tried to find people who not only fit the recruiting criteria, but whose experience with the disease was diverse. We specifically sought out patients of different ages, in different locations across the country—and met with them via webcam. For caregivers, we placed emphasis on finding people from different cultural backgrounds, and who took care of patients at different stages in the disease process. This heterogeneity within the stim panels helped foster the variety of experience we were looking for.
Adjacent Expertise Panel:This panel includes participants with personal or professional expertise that overlaps with the purpose of your project in some way. A few months ago, we were tasked with designing a process to generate new financial models. While our Creative Consumers® associates are very adaptable, we knew that something as abstract—and potentially complicated—as financial models, was going to need some extra mental horsepower. Working with our client, we identified 8 adjacent experts with experience in social finance, behavioral economics, internet start-ups and financial products. Our final output reflected their diverse experience—and our client left the session quite happy.
Core Consumer: This type of panel includes participants in your key segment(s). Sometimes our clients are looking to make a strong play to their base. When assembling a stim panel of core consumers, the two most important factors are: maintaining a decent level of heterogeneity in experience, and conducting a thorough articulation screening. The point of this group is to dig into the consumers' experiences—so when designing the guide, we’re sure to throw in a few (appropriately) controversial topics. This is to help promote debate between the panelists—and encourage them to explain and defend their stances.
Aspirational Consumer: This panel contains participants in segment(s) you wish to reach. For our clients looking to break into a market, we often suggest recruiting a stim panel of consumers who do not currently use their product. Depending on the client's objective, we might recruit people who are loyal to a different brand—or possibly even have strong, negative feelings about the category. The advice for Core Consumer stim panel design applies here as well: aim for a mix of life experiences, and do your best to get a healthy debate going.
Stim panels are particularly useful during those "Blue Sky" projects where the client has a lot of room to stretch, and not too many preconceptions coming in. They can also help when the product or message in development has a large impact on the consumer/patient's life. Projects that deal with chronic disease, lifestyle choices, and sensitive topics can benefit greatly from stim panels at the beginning of the process.