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Don't Engage Respondents to Drive Response Rate, Do It to Drive Insight

esomar logoTwo other topics that came up a lot at ESOMAR were respondent engagement and representativeness.   Personally, I think discussions of the former are often misguided and discussions of the latter are a waste of time. Not that I oppose engaging respondents or high response rates, just that I'm practical enough to recognize that neither will happen without a good business reason for them to happen.

With regards to response rate, the boat has clearly sailed. Surely this is clear now that huge research buyers like P&G suggest moving beyond focus on response rate. I suspect they, like me, would love higher response rates, but they have come to realize that it isn't going to happen. The massive increase in the number of surveys being done (I get one every time I take my car in, and I was just handed on here on my plane trip back from ESOMAR) has caused the public to tire of doing them. Add in that improving response rates involves greater costs (more attempts, mixed modes, higher incentives) and greater time. 

Short of government regulations that either limit the number of surveys or require people to participate, I don't see anything changing that basic dynamic.   

I have a more nuanced view of respondent engagement. As I noted in my blog about gaming, there are things we can do to make the experience better for respondents. Beyond gaming there are of course simple things like keeping surveys short and eliminating long batteries of attribute questions, but those things only work one survey at a time. Even if we never did another 30 minute survey (I'm not admitting we do them mind you), it wouldn't stop others from doing them if the clients asked them to. That of course makes it harder for us and others to engage respondents the next time and leads to lower response rates.

This is often what dominates the discussions on engagement and I think that is a mistake. Even while I hate seeing respondents tortured by long, boring and redundant surveys, I realize that as long as there is market demand for them, they will continue. No single company, industry group or even government agency is likely to change that basic fact.

That doesn't mean engagement isn't a good thing. In fact, in my opinion it is critical. Without engagement we can't be sure the answers we are getting truly reflect respondent thinking. Regardless of any benevolent motives I might have, I want to engage respondents because I know the data I get will be better and that it will drive better client decision making.   

That is why I am a firm believer in the use of choice questions. Far too often we asked respondents to do things that are not natural or normal for them. For example, attribute batteries ask them to break their thinking down into little pieces so we can understand what drives the ultimate decision. I'd much rather ask them to make some decisions and then use analytics to sort out the individual pieces. It engages respondents which provides better data which lead to better analytics. 

Sure it is possible over time that all the bad surveys will make it impossible to get anyone to participate, but I can't change that (I don't believe that will ever be the case mind you). What I can do is work within the world as it is to produce the best results possible.

President, TRC


Rich brings a passion for quantitative data and the use of choice to understand consumer behavior to his blog entries. His unique perspective has allowed him to muse on subjects as far afield as Dinosaurs and advanced technology with insight into what each can teach us about doing better research.  

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