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Thursday, September 13, 2007

The use (and abuse) of surveys

Improving online technologies have made it incredibly easy to set up and distribute online surveys. From a marketing (and market research) perspective, we seem to get the best of all worlds -- for a tiny investment in effort and time, we receive virtually instant feedback. It is something of an instant gratification game.

Fair enough. But where do we draw the line. One marketing guru (who I will not name here because, in fairness, I haven't spoken with him) has sent me two 'surveys' in the last couple of weeks. Streaming down the survey, I quickly realized he was engaged in a lead-gathering and data mining exercise. Since most online surveys allow for truly incredible information gathering about who responded, and how each individual responds to an individual question, this data will allow the survey operator's sales representatives to tailor their 'pitch' to the respondents. When the salesperson calls back, the (perhaps unsophisticated) survey participant will, the theory goes, be awed by the sales representative's sensitive and deep understanding and appreciation of the survey-taker's real business concerns.

Yes, this approach perhaps works, but have you noticed the problem underlying this somewhat manipulative approach to survey use. More and more of us are simply refusing to respond to surveys. This doesn't turn off the tap, of course. At 9:30 p.m. in the midst of a family holiday, some guy called our home and tried to engage me in a 'survey'. I am now usually courteous to inbound sales calls (see my previous posting on why), but I gave this guy a blast. My son cheered me!

There is another paradox here, of course. As fewer and fewer respond to surveys, the responses become even more meaningful. Sure, some people complete surveys because they like to or have nothing better to do. But most of the time, people will go to the trouble to complete a survey when they feel a pressing need to respond -- when there is an exceptional motivating circumstance. So, for example, when we stayed at a hotel and service and environment proved to be terrible, we certainly responded to the follow-up survey. (Hilton/Embassy Suites got it right here -- the manager called me back, apologized, and gave us a free night stay voucher -- that worked!)

If, however, you set a survey within a totally voluntary context, you will be impressed by how little most people want to have to do with these things. As an example, in my recent Construction Marketing Ideas newsletter (for which I can track click through responses), we achieved record-breaking interest in the story about the contractor who obtains $10,000 worth of work, in three hours, with a badly-written 'handwritten' note. This is of course a wonderful too-good-to-be-true story. I will follow up on it next week.

I also built in a link to a brief (two question) online survey asking readers to tell us their best and worst marketing experience. Zero response. Nada. Not a thing.

My point is that you should appreciate the power and utility of online surveys -- these things really work -- but also be wary of the irritation factor. But maybe that marketing guru doesn't care about 'irritation'. He knows that the people who bother to complete his survey are hurting enough to respond -- and these are his perfect leads.

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