4 tips on how to make surveys thrive again in 2015

Notwithstanding the fast-pacing environment we are in, brands and businesses should validate their thinking before actually acting on it. This need for fact-based decision making is the reason why survey research remains such a powerful and commonly used research method. According to the ESOMAR global research report, no less than 3 out 4 market research projects conducted worldwide are of a quantitative nature. Surveys are still big today, yet if our industry continues approaching surveys the way it’s done today… the days of survey research will soon be over.

A few weeks back I met up with the global CMI manager of a strong international brand, who told me that about 80% of their market research budget goes to surveys and trackers, delivering anything but insightful or actionable data. Their mission in the next 3 years is to turn that 80/20 ratio around, by increasing the proportion of insight-based research in order to gain more value. I believe this captures the thinking that will dominate the industry in the coming years. Considering that the need for more inspiration and actionability will keep growing on a daily basis, the time has now come for the survey research industry to reconsider what it is doing. Or as Jonathan D. Deitch puts it: “The industry should stop talking about value and start delivering it”.

Too many organizations dedicate a vast portion of their research budgets to recurring and static survey procedures, ending up measuring things for the sake of measuring. Just think of those long standardized brand and experience trackers, communication post-tests or idea screeners and concept evaluation studies. These approaches chow down immense budgets while often not contributing any actionability.
These problems are forcing the industry towards two streams of business models, the standardized service providers on one end and the disruptive value providers on the other. Companies like ZappiStore clearly moved away from those traditional long-winded and expensive processes, allowing research users to choose from a mix of standard validation products (developed by different agencies) to get those results quickly when needed; resulting in research that is good enough, yet faster and cheaper. This is similar to the wave Google surveys has been surfing on. The other stream is characterized by companies doing research that is delivered fast enough, but more insightful and actionable. In order for research agencies to survive in this industry, they therefore need to move away from the traditional, we-do-it-all, stuck-in-the-middle positioning. Research players should either start automating or disrupting. It should be about creating value either by providing standardized products at a lower cost or by thinking differently.

Here are our views and tips on how we believe we can make surveys thrive again:

Tip 1: #Short&Sharp – Weed out those unnecessary questions

Too often surveys consist of this long list of questions where participants are to answer one question after another. These long and boring surveys are the reason why it is getting increasingly difficult to attract (new) consumers to participate in research – and don’t forget about the negative effect this has on the data quality. Researchers and research users should start evaluating their surveys critically and eliminate all those questions which do not contribute to the overall research objective. Far too frequently do surveys contain questions that will not be used at any point in the final decision-making. So start weeding out those unnecessary questions and only include those that will provide you with data you can act upon! Once you have evaluated your survey, assuring it only contains those essential questions, the next step is to assess whether it is actually possible for consumers to provide you with accurate and truthful answers. Avoid questions that require participants to look too far back in time; limit your questions’ time frame. Subsequently, you need to make sure that each question is written in clear consumer language. This might feel like a no-brainer, yet in reality far too many surveys use marketing jargon. So ask yourself whether your average consumer would be able to answer your questions. And last but not least, you need to keep in mind that surveys are yet another brand touch point, so adapt your design, language and look & feel accordingly.

Tip 2: #CaptureComplexity – Capturing context

Surveys today do not cope sufficiently well with the complex reality of consumer behavior. We are social animals, hence our decisions are colored by group thinking. In addition, consumer behavior is triggered by the context or occasion we find ourselves in as well as by our habits, mood and emotions. A context is often a better predictor of consumer behavior than individual characteristics. As a consequence, survey research needs to go beyond simply asking questions and start effectively measuring the contextual background consumers live in. By integrating smart tools in surveys, we manage to grasp this contextual understanding as well as get an impression of the implicit thinking that drives consumers in their decision-making.
Our implicit measurement tool, for example, puts participants under time pressure in order to filter out over-rationalization, while our ideation tool allows consumers to brainstorm and shape ideas in a social environment.
One of the key areas where context has an important influence is purchase decisions. A recent project in cooperation with DEMB (D.E Master Blenders, an international coffee and tea company) showed that real value can lie in taking along context occasions in your research design. In what we call a ‘game of context’ approach, we gave each participant 2 missions, both related to a relevant coffee occasion. Participants could unlock a mission by uploading a picture proving they were in the required context, whereupon they were invited to rate a random concept. This context measurement approach showed to be more differentiating and to have a clear impact on concept appeal, relevance and credibility. In addition, the mobile image capturing allowed to understand what these context occasions represent for consumers.
Game of context
In survey research (including trackers), we therefore need to create an ideal mix between asking questions and integrating smart tools in order to get a better and richer understanding.

Tip 3: #Actionability – Track against the insights

In our industry, if we are not talking about (big) data, we sure are rambling on about insights. This overly-used notion of insights leads to a true misconception amongst brands and organizations. I won’t go into detail here about what an insights is or isn’t, if you want to know more I’d like to refer to one of our recent webinars on the Art of Insighting. What I do wish to highlight, however, is the importance of tracking insights in everything you do. An insight is a platform for many ideas, concepts and innovations. As a result, it should express your brand’s identity and should thus be reflected in everything you do. An insight should function as both your start and end point. Yet far too often, brands and researchers are obsessed with the sole act of discovering insights, forgetting to leverage those previously found insights that might matter. And even if an insight served as a springboard for a new product or concept, we tend to forget to look back and check whether the innovation truly reflects the insights it embraces. With 80% of all product launches failing, it is important that your innovation truly reflects the insights it encircles.

Tip 4: #Lively – Qualitative afterlife

The sole role of participants in survey research is to respond to a researcher’s questions, without the option to ask questions themselves or to provide additional feedback. Yet, consumers are valuable consultants and we can benefit from allowing them to go further in their collaboration with a brand. To facilitate this next level of survey participation, we created the Village, a social online platform participants can access after their survey participation, which consists of different task-based elements. The contextual tasks and challenges in this survey afterlife add an understanding of a qualitative nature to your survey results. Besides engaging in these activities, participants can connect with other and even ask questions to researcher and brand. For brands like eBay, the use of this qualitative afterlife has proven to be truly powerful. The output from these tools and challenges, existing of consumer visuals, stories and ideas, allows us to bring more sensing and understanding to the research results. In addition, the involvement of consumers in sharing advice and feedback allows for shaping very tangible and relevant recommendations for improvement.

Blurring the lines even further between qual and quant

Ultimately, we believe every survey should become what we call a ‘Consumer Consulting Survey’, a smart survey that goes beyond asking questions in order to provide actionable learnings while at the same time allowing consumers to go further in their collaboration with the brand. This newest generation of surveys, where your quant is fueled with consumer stories and visuals, has shown to lead to more impactful results. Yet these surveys can only be successfully implemented when sufficient efforts are made at managing the basics. Without any extended efforts on data quality and questionnaire optimization, all additional efforts to get richer and better data are useless.
But it sure does not end here; the real beauty is created by blurring the lines even further between quant and qual, and this by combining a structural collaboration approach, using a Consumer Consulting Board or online research community, with a next-generation survey as described above. The ongoing community allows you to discover your consumers, detect insights, develop innovations, strengthen your brand power, optimize your go-to-market strategy or improve customer experience, every single day. Connecting this approach with new generation surveys creates a true Yin & Yang effect, allowing you to smartly validate consumer input and translate it into actionable learnings. Blurring these lines will help you create an eco-system of inspiration and validation streams.

So let 2015 bring a goodbye to surveys and trackers as we know them. Start automating those standardized approaches, so that those budgets are no longer chowed down by lengthy processes. Let go of those old school surveys and start looking for what value you can truly offer your clients. 2015 will be about killing those dinosaur surveys, it will be about disrupting (or at least die trying)!

Eager for more? Get your free download of Collaborating beyond Responding: Creating engaging surveys which capture the complex consumer reality.

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