Rethinking online research

by Pen Stuart

As consultants and researchers try to understand evolving consumer behaviour, we quite often use online survey research. It’s one of those areas which seemed like a revelation when it was first introduced, if only because it pushed down research costs, but has changed little recently. The online world has moved on but online research is still trapped by the legacy of the forms and questionnaires of face to face research. It is a classic example of using technology to do an old thing in a new way.

But there’s a cost to this: dull forms leads to lower engagement with the questions which leads to lower quality answers; poorer data, in other words. So, like all areas which have got stuck, it is crying out for some innovation.

To help us understand what is coming next, we invited the market research specialists GMI in to talk about what they’re doing to refresh the online survey. Their view: survey writing is becoming a creative discipline, a specialist form of communication designed to get people to respond better – exactly as happened with the emergence of advertising as a discipline.

Their research suggests that respondents are happy to spend longer on questionnaires, and provide much richer and more considered results, and without being paid more, if you make the survey process more entertaining. Activating their imagination is crucial, to get respondents to think in more interesting ways about your subject. Instead of just asking ‘what is your opinion on…’, for example, GMI asks you to ‘imagine you are being interviewed by a journalist who asks…’, thereby creating an element of role play. Tests show it gives proven longer and more thoughtful responses.

They’ve also borrowed from games design – turning repetitive actions with little tangible benefit into a structured process that engages and entertains. This can make the survey more of a challenge. But the answer to the obvious question – won’t people just quit the survey? – is ‘no’. But it depends on the design of the challenge. Changing a question from  ‘describe yourself’ to ‘describe yourself in exactly 7 words’ means that people spend more time on it, leading to better responses and better data.

There’s a catch, of course: the cost of developing the questionnaire increases. The solution to that problem is finding clients who care about the quality of the research data they’re getting back. And engagement also opens up new types of response – relevant when you start to think about increasing open source innovation, and getting consumer feedback on new product development. All in all, something to start experimenting with.

The image at the top of the post comes from The Listening Post blog, where there is an interesting post on why respondents abandon surveys. The image is used with thanks.

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