FEATURE1 January 2011

Hear me out: Let’s give research reports to respondents

Ever had an idea that you know is genius, but everybody else thinks is crazy? Here is your chance to share it with the world of research. This month, Gary Austin, head of quantitative research at 100%Cotton, shares his vision.

What’s the big idea?
We should write research reports for respondents. I don’t mean we should send them the full report or invite them to a debrief (they’d either be bored stiff or end up hearing sensitive information that clients wouldn’t want to divulge). I’m just suggesting we produce concise, fun documents which give respondents some feedback on surveys in which they have participated, and explain how the information will be used.

Sounds like a lot of hassle. What’s in it for researchers?
Part of my inspiration is Dan Ariely’s book The Upside of Irrationality, in which he discusses people’s inability to motivate themselves to carry out work without purpose. He gives the example of a well-paid employee of a large corporation who puts together a presentation for a meeting, only for the meeting to be cancelled. Although this doesn’t affect his remuneration and his boss praises the presentation, the employee is still frustrated that the effort he has put in has been wasted. I thought of how this applies to market research and saw a parallel - not with the people employed in the industry but with those who give us the information we need: survey respondents.

Too often in research we ask respondents to complete a survey but give them very little clue about why. So they don’t understand its purpose and aren’t given any motivation (except maybe a modest financial incentive) to cooperate. Are we not unwittingly suggesting that respondents are not very bright, that they wouldn’t understand what we do and that the results can only be shared with those on a higher intellectual plane?

This is a particular concern for the large online panels where respondents are continually asked to complete surveys. What is their motivation? With no apparent purpose to the exercise, the temptation to cheat or rush through surveys without thinking is heightened.

If we provide respondents with appropriate feedback about how the research is used, it shows how much we value their input and gives us more chance of engaging them in future research, and improving the quality and rate of response.

Surely that happens already?
Of course – some enlightened clients and agencies are already doing this in well-run communities and panels, particularly in b2b research where financial incentives tend not to work so well.

But in my experience as both a researcher and respondent, it is rare. Until recently I was a member of a major company’s new concept panel. Around once a month I was sent a range of concepts to rate. Yet not once did I ever receive any feedback from this company on how it was using my input. It would have been interesting to see how other panel members had rated the different concepts and to know which ideas the organisation was taking further. That would have been enough to keep me motivated.

Finally, after six months, I did receive a communication: a short message telling me that it was company policy to remove panel members on a regular basis. No explanation was given other than: ‘It’s nice to give other people the chance to take part.’ Rather than improve my perception of the company, this made me feel less positive towards the brand and, if I wasn’t involved in the industry, I’m pretty sure it would have made me feel less positive towards market research.

OK, but is it worth the effort for clients?
The effort and cost of providing proper feedback to respondents isn’t great. In many cases all that is required is a few thoughtful paragraphs sent by email, but as it’s not an ingrained part of today’s market research culture it just doesn’t happen. It’s time to change that. In these days of ever-declining response rates and concerns about the public’s perception of the research industry, we need to make this type of feedback the norm. After all, respondents are the industry’s lifeblood, and we should be doing all we can to make their experience a positive one.