And the survey says…

The long running game show “Family Feud” has long made entertainment out of survey data. Businesses, organizations and students attempt to make sense from similar data. The problem facing researchers: too many researchers.

Before getting too deep into this tirade, for context you should know that my first job out of college was as a field interviewer conducting surveys for Burke Market Research. I believe audience research represents a core element of any viable communication strategy; I sit on the advisory board of Quirk’s Publishing, which serves the professional market research community; and since coming to the UST MBC, about half of the nearly 200 final research projects I have supervised included survey research. In short, I am a fan of good survey data.

In recent years, my email seems to attract at least one survey request a day (often more). Every grocery and restaurant receipt includes an invitation to participate in a survey. Most purchases online offer the same, and some even force some level of participation. Many use incentives from discounts to drawings to induce engagement.  There are only so many times in a day when people can justify “…a few minutes of your time to complete our survey, so we can better serve you.”

Add to this deluge of click-button information gathering the most potentially damaging genre of survey research: homespun surveys made “easy” through tools such as Survey Monkey. To these well-intentioned inquisitors I have only to suggest that simply because I can wear a bikini on the beach does not mean it has the same impact as when a Sports Illustrated model does so.

The result of this over saturation becomes progressively lower engagement rates.  While this is of no concern to the monkey-shiners, professional and academic researchers have reason for concern. Poor participation means poor data or increased cost in order to get sufficient samples to assure data quality.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a panacea to offer that will make your next survey participation rate skyrocket. I do have a thought on the “quality” issue, however. Even though qualitative interviews will never provide data generalizable across large universes of individuals, from an applied perspective the activity may offer a general idea of what quantitative measures might show.  Plus, interviews often provide new insights beyond the perspective of the researcher.

Pulling together enough participants to conduct good interviews can be fast and fascinating. If nothing else, it can reduce the number of survey questions you ask and help refine those that are left. Case in point: I had planned to include a link to a survey about your satisfaction with this blog, but after asking a few people around the office, decided I didn't really want to know.

Dr. Michael C. Porter, APR is director of the Master of Business Communication Program.