Avoiding Extinction – Reinventing the Survey.

If panels and data-bases are getting better at telling us the “whats” of the world, and improved qualitative and new nuero-science techniques are getting better at the “whys” (see my last post), then what’s left for the old-school ad hoc survey? Well obviously it can be argued that where representative samples are needed to establish incidence or opinion, well-designed surveys will always be pre-eminent. There is some truth in this, but perhaps not enough of such studies to maintain a global MR industry! The real future of the survey is in recognising and playing to three key strengths:

1. Context and exploration. Surveys, imaginatively used, can cover a huge amount of ground cost-effectively. But this breadth of possibility is too often used as an excuse for questionnaires that lack focus. Many surveys still try and do too much, in too little depth, using poorly worded questions to tackle issues that are ill-defined. The real strength of a survey is in being able to explore an issue in-depth and in context.  As a simple example of context, consider “social networking” – new software, improved theoetical frameworks and the design advantages of online surveys should be resulting in hundreds of mainstream applications for this concept. But most social network studies are still in either the obvious/easy category (e.g. social media), or specialised (e.g. Pharma) categories. Mainstream applications that merge social network analysis with analytics of behavioural patterns (for example, pre-store influences on shopping behaviour) are under-explored. But it is in areas like this that the survey’s ability to question people about the wider context of their social lives can generate new kinds of insights. Unfortunately, to properly explore the likes of pre-purchase influences on consumers lives we need to improve the design of questionnaires and focus them around that single business issue – not to try and include every possible question anyone might ask about a category or brand. We also have to deliver findings that delve into the data to see how social networks, attitudes, behaviours and lifestyles really interact. Such analysis is often claimed, but too seldom delivered.

2. Triangulation. The future of the survey may not be as simple stand-alone services. The most powerful ad hoc survey  (in diagnostic terms), I have ever utilised was when working with a  “product” that we had explicitly designed to use survey information to complement panel, sales and qualitative data. This was not just a matter of presenting the data-sets alongside each other, but of designing integrated measures and explicitly using the strengths of each methodology to tell a complete story. Combining survey data seamlessly with other data-sets is clearly of interest to many clients, but it remains a challenge. To do this properly is not just a software or statistical issue (as some seem to think), but requires investment in R&D to create consistent systems for comparing and reporting such information and in finding people with the skills to integrate and interpret such data. Tight budgets make tackling this extra hard, but the potential rewards are huge.

3. Flexibility and responsiveness. Many MR companies are now capable of turning around surveys very quickly. Yet this speed is not necessarily being exploited. Most surveys these days (some opinion polling excepted), either periodically track pre-set themes/questions, or wait for a client to define a problem and respond to it. This reflects the traditional “ad hoc” nature of the survey and results, usually, in a lot of post-event analytics trying to explain the past. There is no need for this to happen this way – tracking, panel or retail studies can be set up so that certain criteria trigger analysts to launch ad hoc surveys. A new brand getting unusually high up-take, the first signs of decline in brand equity or a change in behaviour of a key market segment – potentially any “interesting event” that a currency or tracking study throws up can act as an agreed trigger that launches a custom survey investigation. Similarly agencies could consider new models of syndication, producing not one large “standardised” study of a market every year but a series of investigations that are timed to respond dynamically to changes in the marketplace and provide in-depth coverage of key issues as they emerge. Yes, this implies agencies finding new ways of forging relationships with research buyers, and new pricing models – but potentially very worthwhile ones for both sides?

There are many other possible advantages of the ad hoc survey, of course. And there will always be a place for a short, sharp basic survey asking about an opinion or attitude. Unfortunately a large chunk of current global MR revenue is still derived from surveys that are definitively basic in approach but, alas, are neither short, nor sharp. There is no real future in this.

To change, as an industry, we have to tackle the core problem of creating more interest in survey-based services that can deliver on the three advantages above. This will take some investment in strategic analysis and more imaginative approaches. Then, to actually deliver, we need to start equipping researchers with the research frameworks and – more importantly – the mental tools to design more efficient, focussed questionnaires, and to creatively delve into data for insights. None of this is easy, but as long as our approach to designing, marketing and handling custom surveys is determinedly ad hoc, we will tend to deliver research that is inconsistent and of marginal profitability. Change is therefore vital, and will yield real competitive advantages to the companies that are brave enough to make the effort.

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