OPINION5 April 2023

The value of engaging surveys

CX Innovations Opinion Trends

New innovations are great for the industry, but researchers should not overlook the power of making surveys as relevant as possible for respondents, says Ben Walton.

yellow lightbulb floats above blue ones against a blue background

This year will be my 40th, which means I am closing in on 20 years in the market research industry. Whenever you approach milestones in your life, or indeed your career, it is hard not to reflect on your experiences and the extent to which things have changed or remained the same. The explosion of industry excitement around the launch of ChatGPT has cast me back to, in my opinion, the one, truly game-changing innovation in market research, which I had the benefit of experiencing firsthand.  

A wry smile can’t help but appear on my face when I recall some of the almighty rows back in the 2000s when the subject of moving research surveys online was first broached in healthcare market research, where I began my career. As a young market research executive, I stayed out of the vicious debates between the trailblazers who felt this was the paradigm shift to deliver scale never seen before, and the bastions of research quality who could not see any way the internet could deliver the same standard as traditional research methods. 

The reason for the wry smile is not so much for the advent of online market research but for everything that has come since. It feels as an industry we have been searching for ‘something else’ to come and deliver the same seismic shift. Be it big data, platforms and dashboards, artificial intelligence, the certain death of PowerPoint, or the even more certain death of surveys themselves. There have been so many grand pronouncements of ‘game-changing innovations’, but nothing has delivered the level of disruption as the shift to online. And this leads me to ask: have we got that innovation right yet? 

I ask this as the same debates that raged 20-odd years ago still exist when it comes to the effectiveness, impact and quality of online market research. While the industry reaches for the shiniest new thing, it continues to ignore an option that has stared us plainly in the face for much of the last two decades – our collective ability to make surveys as engaging as possible for respondents willing to give up their time to take part.  

Let’s start with the most blatantly obvious, but consistently overlooked way to achieve this – the length of surveys themselves. How we, as researchers, can conceive anyone’s attention span lasting longer than 10 minutes for an online survey is beyond me. Proposing anything approaching 30 minutes in this day and age is frankly a waste of everyone’s time. Clearly, shorter surveys will require focus in terms of research objectives and survey design, but there is also the opportunity to be creative with split samples and modular designs. 

Equally as important as it is unglamourous is accurate screening and routing within a survey, to make sure exactly the right respondents are answering exactly the right type of questions. It is crazy that I am still witnessing the havoc caused by respondents entering a survey where they do not quite match the criteria. Similarly, there is nothing more frustrating for a respondent than being asked a question to which they have already excluded themselves from answering.  

Then we come to the questions themselves, with the immediate killer for survey enjoyment being the overuse of open ends, in particular the deployment of open ends in sequence. Now, while the use of pre-coded lists is not always the answer, there are some neat, creative solutions available to avoid the dreaded empty box.

For numerics, where a level of specificity is required but not to a decimal point accuracy, sliders do the job very nicely. And when rationale is necessary to explain a previous answer, voice capture is available to avoid text entry; incidentally, this has proven to be one of the highest-rated question types in terms of engagement, according to a recent survey we commissioned for a client. 

The use of more inventive question designs to improve survey experience isn’t isolated to open ends, with numerous engaging techniques now freely available to all researchers. Two of my favourite examples are the use of text highlighting and hotspot tools for all forms of concept testing research.  

Don’t get me wrong, I welcome new innovation in whatever shape, size or guise, and as an industry we absolutely do need to keep pushing the envelope to remain fresh and relevant. As we continue to be the target of those hellbent on sounding the death knell for survey-based research, some of the most effective forms of defence could be a found in plain sight, a little closer to home.

 Ben Walton is chief commercial officer at Walr