In Defense of the Survey

By Paul Hudson

Traditional Surveys

Whatever has been predicted about the demise of market research or surveys, they are still very much alive today. Far from being extinct, surveys are flourishing. To the point, some might argue, that customers now treat them like spam. This in turn, they add, will harm response rates and will speed up their demise.

Whilst I am concerned about spam and I’d like to see professional standards of market research upheld, I can’t help being pleased that surveys have gone ‘mass market’. Surveys are no longer the domain solely of statisticians or geeks. As market researchers, this is pleasing because for a long time we have been lone voices within organisations arguing the case for getting regular and structured feedback from customers. We have long  advocated customer centricity. And surveys have delivered this. Enter just about any department in a company – customer service, e-commerce, marketing, operations – and it won’t be long before customer feedback is mentioned.

Surveys are far more widely used and applied than 10 years ago. First surveys went online, then market research Access Panels made them more convenient. Survey Monkey introduced the ‘freemium’ model and made them cheaper. Since then, numerous companies have gone on to copy that model. Alongside this, the customer experience world promoted Voice of Customer (VoC) programmes so much it gave rise to the Enterprise Feedback Management (EFM) approach to deploying surveys throughout an organisation across many points of customer interaction.

As a result, surveys have boomed.

This is great news for market research surveys and we are optimistic for our profession, right? Wrong, as ever there is angst and worry. Let’s take a look at the past and the present of surveys to understand why before we look to the future.

The Ghost of Surveys Past

I look back on the use of surveys with a degree of nostalgia and surprise – surprise at how we all put up with them! They seemed long, slow, variable in quality and boring to report. Whilst I have always been more comfortable with data than unstructured comments, I have to say that my first years in market research were a little dull. We wrote a lot of questions, tried desperately to manage the quality across a CATI centre and turned out charts – lots of them!

When it did get sophisticated, the talk was of significant difference testing (yawn!) and not ‘what does this mean for our client’. As much as I want to be younger again, I don’t want to go back to that!

The Ghost of Surveys Present

If we are honest, surveys in the present are a mixed bag. Moving online from CATI was great; faster, cheaper, better has very much been the mantra. In addition, infographics are unleashing the results in ways never imagined previously. The VoC and EFM programmes mentioned above have also opened up a whole new world of opportunity. All of these things mean we all love surveys, right?

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"VoC. EFM & online research have been large proponents of the faster and cheaper model of surveying."

Yet, there is more debate now about the future of them than ever before – Big Data means we won’t need surveys in the future and the ‘quality’ debate has just shifted to worries about sample quality (due to over-sampling within Access Panels), length (in a mobile world), poor question design (due to increasing DIY use) and automated reporting (leading to emphasis on data and not interpretation). So surveys would appear to be at a cross-roads, despite (or because of) the boom in their use.

In that case, the future of surveys must be bleak? Wrong.

The Ghost of Surveys Future

The future is optimistic for surveys. It really is. Organisations will always need and use them. Whatever the future holds for Big Data (and I am a great believer in that too), organisations will always have questions they want to ask. And they will certainly always love %’s. Decisions drive businesses, numbers drive decisions and questions drive meeting agendas. Surveys will remain the foundation of this process for a long while to come – at least the next 5 years, if not the next 10.

We have a long way to go before data mining can quickly answer the questions raised in meetings or before Directors trust that analysis process over direct questioning. In addition, the VoC and EFM markets have taught businesses to proactively seek out customer feedback. This culture is becoming embedded.

The business world is changing – disruption is continuous, consumers are fickle, decisions need to be made faster – and market research needs to evolve with it. Which it is. But we need to learn to evolve with the trends rather than seemingly resist them. The EFM market is saturated with technology firms, many of which are not from a research background. The freemium survey market has led to debates about falling quality and the disintermediation of the research process (bypassing agencies and client researchers alike). Now Big Data is seen as a threat rather than an opportunity. In addition, we have been slow to adopt mobile as a primary deployment mechanism and industry standards have not kept pace with the demands of EFM.

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"Market research needs to learn to evolve with change & mobile methods rather than resist them."

Big Data and surveys are complementary tools – they are a natural fit because they each need the other. Big Data analysis is likely to raise as many questions as it will answer and surveys on their own don’t have the clout that huge datasets of real time behavioural data has. Together they create a virtuous circle of insight to support continuous decision making.

Digital data collection also means surveys need to be far better integrated with qualitative research methods. In the digital economy of the 21st century it just isn’t good enough that quant and qual are still so separate.

The future survey is much shorter, mobile enabled, connected to Big Data sources and integrated with qual research. They will be created with design and user experience principles in mind (not just perfect question scripting) and will work across multiple deployment mechanisms with ease (combining panels, customer lists and event-triggering etc.).

The future of surveys and market research is more exciting than ever. We just have to embrace it.

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Paul Hudson

Paul Hudson- CEO & Founder

Personal Bio: Paul is an expert in online research with 17+ years of experience. He has grown FlexMR from an ambitious new agency into the world leading research platform it is today.




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