OPINION25 October 2010

Beyond bog standard surveys


Yvonne Taylor, director of research agency Product Perceptions, says we must work harder to make surveys enjoyable for respondents – even if they’re about toilet paper.

What makes for a good respondent experience? If only we could come up with a fantastic philosophy where respondents achieved self-actualisation by the end of the survey – but we can’t. The best we can hope for is that the experience is fun, or at the very least, not considered a waste of time.

At Product Perceptions we are lucky to be working in the field of FMCG – very relevant to consumers and something they interact with everyday. Having said that, we work with plenty of low-interest categories. We recently won an award from sample provider SSI for an online survey with the highest level of respondent satisfaction – and the survey in question was about toilet roll.

Here are a few golden rules on how to keep respondents happy, whatever you’re talking to them about.

Don’t ask respondents to do too much
They’ll get bored and the data you get back will be compromised – this applies to any form of data collection (online, face to face, self completion and telephone).

Don’t make the task too hard
One of my colleagues is no slouch in the brains department but when he participated in a telephone survey about financial products he didn’t have a clue what they were asking (and neither did the interviewer). If respondents are made to feel foolish then they will be dissatisfied with the whole process. If an online respondent doesn’t understand something, there’s no interviewer to ask, so make sure questions are clear, or use help boxes.

Use the right tool for the job
If you are asking questions about complex financial products then online research probably isn’t the right tool – unless you have a highly targeted audience. The survey that won us the SSi award was about toilet rolls – a tricky and embarrassing subject to discuss face to face but well suited to the more impersonal interface of online.

Stick to what people care about
One of the last online surveys I participated in was about my restaurant experiences. Great, I thought, I eat out a lot and like telling people what I think, so I should have found the survey really interesting. How wrong I was. The survey was intensely boring – far too many grid responses, and then follow-up questions for every restaurant category I had selected in the grid. Not surprisingly, I gave up halfway through and have not participated in an online survey since. With a little thought, this could have been much more interesting – it could have just asked me about my three favourite types of restaurant, or even just my favourite, and then invited me to respond about other types. That way I would have had some control over the survey length and the amount of input I was willing to give.

Reward your respondents
By far the greatest reward is to make the experience enjoyable. However, respondents’ time is valuable to them and so a financial incentive given as a thank-you will always help.

Make the task enjoyable
The online research experience is tricky. There are no friendly interviewers to pass the time of day with, just you, the screen and your keyboard. One of the key reasons respondents were so happy with our toilet roll survey was because we made the experience interactive. Respondents completed the recruitment questionnaire and were then sent a couple of products to try. Finally they logged back on to complete the product evaluation questionnaires. So each stage of the questionnaire process was short and sweet, the questions related specifically to the task they had undertaken and the respondents were also rewarded with free stuff to try.

Hopefully the above all makes sense. So why doesn’t it happen? Well, researchers don’t have free reign over the whole process – there are many stakeholders involved:

  • our clients, who usually want to get as much valuable information as possible out of the research process
  • our field managers, interviewers and online managers, who want to be able to feel that they can do a professional job with the questionnaires we give them and that we aren’t asking them to do too much in the time available
  • our respondents, who want to enjoy the research and feel like their responses really will be taken into consideration and make a difference
  • ourselves, who want to be sure that our training and experience counts for something and that our views are incorporated when devising the research process

We would argue that all of these stakeholders are equally important, and if we create an imbalance then we will end up conducting a poorer piece of research. But researchers have got used to treating respondents like the least important people in the process. So how can we make sure we keep the respondent experience positive while keeping our clients happy as well?

It is our role as professional researchers to put forward research solutions that can address the clients’ objectives and maintain a positive respondent experience. As usual this all comes down to a well developed relationship with a client, a proper understanding of the brand and product and some proven experience of what works and what doesn’t.

So next time you are designing a survey, put yourselves in the shoes of your respondents and ask yourself, would I really give up my time to answer these questions? Have I had fun? If the answer is yes, then maybe we can make respondents love research as much as we do.