Endangered Species: building sustainable relationships with research participants
Liz McMahon and Sarah Sanderson, BMRB London
The number of consumers willing to take part in market research is dwindling fast and urgent stewardship is required to protect them from extinction, say Liz McMahon and Sarah Sanderson
We've heard in the past few weeks that global warming is now accepted as fact and that, within 40 years, there could be no more fish in the sea. In our view, the whole ecology of media research is under threat of extinction, unless we take collective action to engage with research partipants and develop a sustainable, ongoing relationship with them. So far, so much gloom and doom, but please stick with us. Yes we want to warn you about how bad we think it could get, but we will also discuss things that we can all do to protect our most precious resource - research participants.So why is this important?
If we are increasingly dependent on a declining pool of willing respondents, then the ability of research to represent a broad heterogeneous reality is severely compromised. We will have no representative, reliable basis for decision-making. An intriguing dichotomy is emerging. People are apparently very willing to share their views and opinions through vehicles such as blogs, online forums or interactive voting, but less willing to participate in market research surveys. We wanted to explore this issue further. With so much research potentially moving online, we have new opportunities to think about respondent engagement in a digital environment.
We are therefore paying particular attention to online research in this paper, although the issues are relevant to all methodologies. There has been rapid growth in online research, notably in the US. The result of the rapid growth in demand there is that some online access panels are in danger of imploding, due to panelists receiving an excessive number of invitations to particpate in surveys.Advertising Age
reported recently that in the US, 50% of all survey responses come from less than 5% of the population; and 0.25% of the population supplies more than 32% of responses to online surveys. These are alarming statistics and the situation in the UK and elsewhere could become just as stark. We fear that, unless we act now, we will see a gradual shift towards dependence on a small number of 'professional respondents'. You might say that professional respondents are not necessarily a bad thing. We disagree - without a representative sample, how can we know that we're dealing in reality?
As the recent Ad Age
article put it, we're in a Catch 22: "No-one really knows whether people who don't answer surveys are similar to those who do. Because they don't answer surveys."
And this, of course applies to all methods. So what are the risks? Recently, when P&G found that online and postal surveys on a new product concept produced conflicting results, one of their executives concluded: "If I had only the online result in this particular case, I would have taken a bad decision right to the top management
So what do we need to do to avoid becoming dependent on a small number of professional respondents? We are going to outline four ways that we can all help to secure a sustainable future for media research, by:
- Ensuring that we don't squander our most precious resource.
- Thinking in terms of different models of respondent participation.
- Treating respondents as individuals and celebrating diversity.
- Investing in protecting and nurturing realtionships with research participants.
None of this comes cheap, but the longer-term cost of failing to act now will be much harder to swallow.
Waste occurs where we are unnecessarily asking the same questions over and over again to gain relatively small increments in knowledge or insight. There are a number of ways that we can reduce waste. most of these will be familiar to you in principle, but it's worth reviewing some practical examples:
Working together in syndicates where we share a common goal. Of course, commercial sensitivities mean that syndication is not always desirable. But it can be a successful model, either where a research agency takes the initiative, or where a group of clients come together to express a common interest. We think that we are likely to see more examples of this in the future.
Using panels where appropriate. These may be proprietary or access panels. We need to be aware of the problems mentioned earlier, not least the statistics suggesting that some US panels are currently stretched to the limit.
Re-contact. There are powerful cost and waste reduction arguments in favour of re-contact surveys, especially where opportunities exist to re-contact individuals for whom we already hold single-source media and marketing data, as we do in the case of TGI re-contacts. TGI Compose, the channel planning tool, scores very well on waste reduction, as it is an example of a syndicated re-contact study
Data fusion and ascription. In cases where re-contact is not feasible, it is worth considering the possibilities of using data fusion to build on what is already known. The potential of fusion to reduce waste is considerable. But, in order for us to have confidence in it, the databases produced need to be carefully scrutinized for data consistency, for the number of times each donor record is used etc. Without the existence of reliable single-source data, we would have no reassurance that the findings resulting from data fusion or ascription are sensible.
Investing in long-term relationships
Traditionally, quantitative market research and therefore much of our industry currency data has been based on a one-off interaction with a respondent. An interviewer spends up to an hour with the respondent (whether in person or over the phone) running through a series of structured questions. She gets the answers and moves on. Our focus has been on gaining agreement to the interview and designing the questions to be answered objectively and accurately. Once the interview was over, our interest in that respondent was, too.
You might even consider it the equivalent of a one-night stand.
But the world is changing. Our respondents expect something more. In today's world they can offer their opinion, in all sorts of ways, from the trivial, such as voting for their favourite on X Factor; to the more serious - creating their own blogs of global warming or Iraq. The online research environment demands that we consider our respondents as a long-term investment. The best panels invest in good quality websites for communication and feedback. The website is a vital reassurance for respondents; without an interviewer there, we need a means of establishing trust in our organisations, and reassurance about the process. But, just as important, a panel website establishes a sense of community - our panelists want a sense of belonging and identity. They also want a regular feedback. And reward is important. We need to give respondents something back and it doesn't have to be solely financial.
Finally, we've found that the amount and regularity of contact is also key. There's a fine line to be struck between regular and interesting communications, and bombarding them with invites to take part.
In the interests of protecting the bio-diversity of our media research environment, we also need to challenge the notion that "one size fits all" and be willing to tailor our research approach to the needs of the specific audience, to find the best possible fit and remove some of the obstacles to participation.
We have an array of alternative data collection techniques at our disposal, such as SMS polls, interactive TV, blogs and asynchronous online discussions, to name a few. The thing to remember when considering how to tailor the approach to the audience, is that you could be making some significant compromises about who the data you get back actually represents and what decisions you are able to make as a result.
In some cases, a mixed-mode data collection will be the only way to reconcile divergent needs within a broad audience. For example, in a survey where it is important to ensure representation of the whole population and not just the online population, an online data collection method might be complemented by an offline method.
Society has changed and marketing communications along with it, too. No longer do we see marketing as one-way communication; we engage with consumers and encourage two-way dialogue with the brand. Research should reflect this too. We should perhaps redefine 'respondents' as 'participants' - suggesting more of a two-way interaction. There are opportunities to enable research participants to set the agenda and to continue the dialogue after the main event. Clearly this is more feasible in an online environment, but it's also possible in non-digital arenas too. So how can we do this ?
Public consultation. A new development we've recently launched is large-scale public consultations. The participants are invited to an event and exposed to issues presented by public speakers, with video footage and shared information. The key point is the way in which participants are invited to understand the issues, help set the agenda and to participate in a far more considered and holistic fashion.
Online blogs. Our latest developments for proprietary panels include a blog on the panel website. We can use this to encourage initial debate about a topic and to give our participants an opportunity to set their own agenda and define topics for research.
Getting creative. Questionnaires can be so much more than a series of close-ended questions. If we make the interface a more fun and interesting experience, not only will we get better quality information, but they'll want to take part again.
A sustainable future
If we don't start changing our behaviour, then in 10 years' time there may be no need for a media research group at all. We'll have lost the trust and co-operation of the general public and we'll be reliant on the voice of the few. In the short term adopting the principles of sustainability is not the easy or the cheapest way. But it will in the long term protect the resource we depend upon and save us all money. Encouraging all-round participation will lead to a greater engagement with our research audiences. Not only will we be saving our industry for the future, but we'll get far better results right now.
The full version of this article originally appeared in volume 13 of WPP's Atticus Journal