I got an online survey the other day from a public organization, and they wanted to know … something. It doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this post.
I like to participate in surveys for a variety of reasons. First, I’m naturally curious about what’s being asked, and why. Maybe I can learn something. Second, if it’s an issue that I care about, I can offer my opinion and have a voice. Third, I’m a human being so I just like to share my opinion. And finally, I have a professional interest in seeing surveys designed by other people, just to compare against my own design ideas.
With the possible exception of the last reason, I would hazard a guess that I’m not uncommon in these motivations. Most people who respond to surveys do so because they’re curious, because they want a voice, and because they like sharing their opinion.
However, it takes time to complete a survey, and like everyone else, my time is precious. I want it to be worth my time, which links back to my motivations. Will participating really give me a voice? Will I learn something from it? Will anyone care what I say? How will my information be used? I want to trust that something good will come from my participation.
This brings me to another key motivator that is not often mentioned. In addition to wanting good outcomes from my participation, I also want to be sure that nothing bad will come of it. I want to trust that the people surveying me are ethical and will protect both me and the results of the survey.
Thinking about these forces, let’s go back to this survey that I received. It was a topic that I care about, so I was interested to see what questions were being asked. I could check ‘curiosity’ off my list. It was from a legitimate organization, so I’d be willing to have a voice in their decisions and share my opinion with them. I could check those two items off my list.
But then I took a second look at the survey. It was being done for a legitimate organization, but with “assistance” from a consultant that I was unfamiliar with. I pulled up Google and tried to look up the company. Nothing. They had no web site at all, and only a half-dozen Google hits that were mostly spam.
When I participate in a survey, I want to know that my responses aren’t going to be used against me. There’s no crime in being a young company, but having no website told me that this wasn’t a legitimate company. Did these people know what they were doing? Were they going to protect my information like a legitimate research company would, or would they naively turn over my responses to the client so they could target me for their next fundraising campaign? I had no idea since I couldn’t identify what the “consultant” actually did.
Beyond that, there was another problem. I clicked on the link, and it took me to one of the low-cost survey hosting sites. Based on my experience in the industry, I know that committed researchers don’t use these sites, and that they’re inadvertently tools for public input rather than legitimate research. (The sampling is usually wrong and there’s often no protection against “stuffing the ballot box”.
I declined to participate in that survey, which made me sad. I suspected that the end client had noble motivations, but in the end they didn’t meet my criteria for participating.
Given our 18 years in the business, we at Corona are often looking at changes on the margins of surveys. What can we do in our wording or our delivery mode or our timing to maximize meaningful participation? This was a good reminder to me that we also have to be careful to satisfy the much more basic and powerful forces that aid or damage participation. Before anything else, the things that survey researcher have to do are:
- Confirm to people that their opinion is important. Maybe this is my bias as a person in the industry, but if I get a cheaply designed survey on software that is used for entertainment polls from some consultant who is virtually unknown by the World Wide Web, it tells me that the project isn’t a priority for the client. If the research is important, give your respondents that message by your own actions.
- Confirm to people that the survey gives them a voice. You can overtly say this, but you also have to “walk the walk” by giving people confidence. One thing that I’ve noticed more and more is the use of surveys as marketing tools rather than research tools. Sending out frequent cheaply produced surveys as a means of “engaging our audience” is not a good idea if the surveys aren’t being used for decision making. People figure out pretty quickly when participation is a waste of their time, and then they’re less likely to participate when you really need their input.
All in all, we in the research industry talk a lot about long-term declines in participation rates, but many of us are contributing to that by ignoring the powerful motivations that people have to participate in surveys. People should WANT to participate in our surveys, and we should support that motivation. We can do that by surveying them only when it’s important, by showing a high level of professionalism and effort in our communications with them, and by helping to reassure them that we’re going to both protect them and carry forward their voice to our clients.