FEATURE1 March 2010

The perfect response


How can the research business keep its respondents engaged? Robert Bain considers whether a more social and interactive approach to the research process is called for.


In their 2009 book The Disloyal Company, Chuck Chakrapani and David Scholz argue that transactions between businesses and their customers tend to be based on ‘market norms’, and that the only way to build loyalty is to start basing them on social norms too. In other words, treat people like people – recognising and reciprocating honesty, trust and loyalty. This means raising the stakes, because if a company adopts social norms then fails to live up to them, it makes things even worse.

Here’s an idea: the same thing applies to research and respondents (although ‘engagement’ is probably a better word than ‘loyalty’ unless you’re recruiting people for some sort of ongoing project). If anything, social norms are even more important when dealing with respondents than when dealing with customers.

Unfortunately the research industry hasn’t done a great job of taking on board the concerns of respondents. The term ‘bad respondent’ exemplifies the tendency to shirk responsibility when methods aren’t working. As Andrew Cooper of Verve puts it, if someone’s not answering surveys properly “That’s not a people problem, it’s a communications problem”.

So what does it mean to adopt ‘social norms’ in your relations with respondents, rather than just doing what you can get away with?

“Let’s face it, MR is about asking people to help your business make more money, so don’t be surprised if their desire to play along wears thin when you present them with matrix after matrix of obscure brands and attributes to compare”

Telling people that their views are important hasn’t stopped response rates from tumbling. Let’s face it, MR is about asking people to help your business make more money, so don’t be surprised if their desire to play along wears thin when you present them with matrix after matrix of obscure brands and attributes to compare.

The most important thing, surely, is to make certain that people have a good experience in return for their input. At the simplest level this means producing surveys that are well-designed, clearly written and most of all not too long. If you put a bad survey in front of someone they will justifiably feel slighted and very likely become a bad respondent.

Too often the respondent experience is the responsibility of nobody in particular. How many agencies employ someone to look at questionnaires from the respondent’s point of view? Is the same attention paid to these communications as to marketing materials, for example? It’s not that people don’t understand the issues, it’s just that there’s a lack of discipline and leadership. The client decides they want to add a couple of questions, the agency sighs and backs down, the questionnaire ends up being written by committee and takes 40 minutes to fill in.

If you’re using a random sample you’ll most likely never see the respondent again so you can afford to worry less about this, but if you’re using a panel you can expect to feel the effects directly.

Going beyond survey quality, treating people in accordance with social norms means allowing them to communicate on their terms, not yours. This month we carry results of a survey by eDigitalResearch which paints an optimistic picture, suggesting that people do like doing research as long as it’s on their own terms – which increasingly means they expect some sort of social or interactive element.

Fiona Blades of Mesh Planning and Rachel Brown of Oxfam gave a paper at last year’s Esomar Congress on how respondents are ‘co-creating the research process’. Not only can they offer feedback on what it’s like to take part in research, they can also be surprisingly insightful about how techniques and methodology could be improved. “The marketing literacy of participants is changing and researchers should listen,” Blades and Brown wrote.

Blades says respondents are becoming ‘professionalised’ and that this is a good thing. “They know what works and what doesn’t, and they are quite professional in that sense. I’ve learned quite a lot from them,” she said.

It often takes a respondent’s perspective to point out where a survey is poorly written, she said. “If there’s a question and they can’t quite answer it within a structured online questionnaire, once they’ve had the experience of having to put in a half truth, they feel disillusioned because they don’t feel you’re that interested in what they really think. That would only have come about through asking people what they thought about the survey.”

Taking a ‘social’ approach to respondent relations isn’t necessarily easy. It means experimenting, investing and innovating. It can also mean challenging research guidelines. eDigitalResearch’s survey suggests that the desire for anonymity among respondents is actually not as strong as the desire for social interaction. Research industry codes insist on protecting anonymity in order to win trust and prevent sugging, but often what respondents really want is the freedom to interact with others.

Web 2.0 technology is, of course, a major element in the changing relationships between respondents and research – although it’s tricky to tell whether social media has created, accelerated or simply revealed these trends.

Client incentives are another point of contention – in the UK the Market Research Society banned them in order to adhere to data protection rules separating marketing and research. The fact that in many cases (online communities in particular) respondents welcome some sort of engagement with the client brand is a secondary concern.

“The word ‘respondent’ gives the impression that we do the talking and they simply respond. It’s painfully Web 1.0. What about participant? Or partner? Or customer? Or collaborator?”

Perhaps treating people right also means calling them something different. The word ‘respondent’ gives the impression that we do the talking and they simply respond. It’s painfully Web 1.0. What about participant? Or partner? Or customer? Or collaborator?

Last month Communispace’s Diane Hessan said that in the future, “engagement will trump sample size”. The agencies that ignore the social norms will chug along without
much engagement, having an increasingly difficult time getting people to take part in research. Others will earn respondent engagement and reap the rewards.

This stuff shouldn’t really be too difficult. It is, after all, a researcher’s job to understand how people behave and why, but in the rush to become experts on why people buy yoghurt or download ringtones we can forget to be experts in how and why people take part in research in the first place.

Some in the industry are more scared than others about the future of survey research. Jay Leve of SurveyUSA believes that telephone research (i.e. his business) is in its dying days. “Ringing someone’s phone without warning and asking if they have 20 minutes to spend with you flies in the face of everything that’s going on in the world today,” he told Research last year. Nor does he see much of a future for online research in its current form, describing web-based surveys that recruit via pop-ups and email invitations as “dead ends”. Research, Leve believes, must be conducted on terms that are favourable to the respondent first and foremost.

Pete Comley of Virtual Surveys believes that we’re approaching the point of ‘peak panel’, when respondents’ tolerance of online panel invites hits its peak and the only way is down. The recession and the trend for short, sharp surveys may have bought us a little time, but we’ll start feeling the effects in a few years, Comley says. He hopes that salvation lies in online communities and other techniques such as co-creation that encourage a triangular relationship between respondent, client and agency. These areas are growing rapidly in comparison with traditional methods, so will this more equitable type of respondent relationship spread to other types of research?

One of the biggest obstacles to changing your approach is the belief that the shortcomings of established techniques are unavoidable, or that they don’t have shortcomings. They’re not – we’ve only put up with them because we’ve been so anxious to avoid other problems. But with respondent participation becoming scarcer that equation has changed.

The thing to remember is that all research methodologies are a trade-off. And if Diane Hessan is right about engagement trumping sample size, the best trade-off may not be the one you thought it was.