Contextual surveys: Keeping surveys alive, bringing respondents to life

Last month I had the honor to take the ‘stage’ at the NewMR Webinar “Advances in quant research”.  In my presentation I took the opportunity to share our ideas on contextual surveys, a new survey approach we’ve been developing the last couple of months. In this blogpost I’ll give you on overview of this approach, which is more task-based, with bite-size questions, has illustrative co-creational elements and basically takes surveys into the asynchronous mode.

Are surveys a dead-end approach?

Market research is becoming more and more consumer and participant centric, but we feel there is still a long way to go in surveys. Despite everyone’s efforts to keep surveys as engaging as possible, responses are declining. We feel that consumers don’t like it anymore. Compared to more inspiring and engaging methods like MROC’s we are definitely lagging behind in our surveys. Sure, we challenge ourselves to keep surveys as engaging as possible. Several techniques help us to make our questionnaires more attractive to complete. We use for instance gamification elements, mobile optimization to complete a questionnaire whenever, wherever, and engage participants by varying in our question types and make it more fun. Nevertheless, it’s justifiable to say that our standard survey approach has reached its expiration date. Also, from a client perspective the most powerful research is when it’s is a conversation starter and tells a genuine and lively story about customers. Surveys often lack the personal context to truly understand behavior and tell this story.


We believe that a first step in this challenge is to further fuse our methods by using the goods of qualitative in quantitative research in order to engage respondents and enrich our data by adding more contextual information. This all means that this type of research is crossing and stretching some boundaries. We stretch the boundaries of quantitative research by also giving people ethnographic and contextual tasks. We stretch the boundaries of our profession because we also seed control to consumers and involve them as co-researchers.
Ultimately our challenges are:

  • How can we inspire and engage participants and clients in surveys?
  • How can we tell a lively story with rich context next to numbers and graphs?
  • And how can we make people generate information?

4th of July case

4th of JulyTo test our ideas on this contextual survey approach we started a project called ‘the 4th of July’ in which we asked US citizens about their 4th of July celebrations. Next to some U&A topics about their drinking, eating and party behavior during this day we asked participants to join our contextual part of the survey. For this contextual part we selected participants that were going to attend or organize a home party during this event and asked them if they were willing to complete some tasks the days prior to and during the 4th of July. These tasks consisted of their preparation, their shopping and the party itself. An integrated platform within our survey enabled us to:

  • Give people tasks next to the questions we want to ask them
    • Tasks that are inspired by observational and ethnographic research. Like asking consumers to explore their environment, observe their own behavior by making pictures and reflect on those.
    • But also more co-research tasks, for example interview a friend at the party.
  • Ask participants to come back over time and complete tasks in a later stage of the project.
  • Let participants complete the tasks without costly 1-on-1 moderation.

ForwaR&D lab test

Our conclusion from the 4th of July test is that the approach shows great potential:

  • High participant engagement Participants seem to have a high interest in this type of survey. Almost 40% (n: 201) subscribed and accepted our conditions to join the contextual part. Activity levels however were slightly lower than expected with approximately 30% (n:60) completed (most of) their tasks. But even then, without any active moderation, we received around 500 useful and insightful photos and descriptions. Participants themselves were pretty positive too. ‘Fun’, ‘cool’, ‘different’, ‘wouldn’t mind doing another one in the future’ are just some keywords in their responses that tell us we are on the right track.
  • Rich contextual information Leaving aside the drop of response and low quality input from some of the participants, the ones who completed their tasks provided rich contextual input about their 4th of July party.  The survey itself gave us the stats and figures about Americans celebrating the 4th of July. But, combined with the contextual input we were able to bring these figures to live and actually show how this looks like for the ‘average American’. When looking more into detail at both the pictures and comments we’ve learned their parties are unpretentious, relaxed, with no real hassle to prepare everything to make it ‘perfect’. The pictures and stories also tell us that most of the food is home-made and at uses all american brands for both their food and drinks.

High potential

All in all we see a lot of potential for this type of research in the future. The approach bridges a gap between quantitative and qualitative research and enables us to provide clients ‘best of both worlds’ by delivering both the statistical ‘evidence’ from the regular part of the survey and the rich qualitative output to bring it alive and deepen the results.For the next months we need to learn, improve and continue to make this work better. In terms of activity, consistent quality among participants we have still some work to do. But we are positive to make it happen!

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