Strange as it may seem, there exists a murky underworld in market research. It is inhabited by what are known as research groupies – people who turn up again and again in focus groups or, less frequently, as questionnaire respondents.
These groupies can be spotted a mile away in focus groups: they arrive bang on time and head straight for the free wine. This in itself is not a problem. In an age of declining response rates, having people who are willing to answer questions is surely a bonus. It could be, if you knew who you were talking to. The problem is, research groupies change identity with alarming regularity. In one interview they will be married with no children; six months later in another interview they will be divorced with teenage children. And when it comes to finding questionnaire respondents, field workers are increasingly relying on the same core of people, and their mates, who they know will oblige.
This situation is symptomatic of the number of people needed to respond to the growing needs of market research. Field researchers are either finding it increasingly difficult to hunt down people willing to get involved, or, as some believe, they have been in the business so long that they are happy to keep the numbers up and are less worried about the quality and honesty of respondents.
The decline in response rates has become such a serious problem that the Market Research Society (MRS) has launched a number of initiatives aimed at halting the slide. According to Richard Windle, research director TGi at BMRB, response rates to the National Readership Survey (NRS) have dropped to 60 per cent. He says: “Responses have been falling for years. But the NRS is a useful benchmark to indicate what is going on elsewhere as it has been running for about 40 years.”
Anyone who has ever answered a questionnaire will be familiar with the pages and pages of seemingly irrelevant questions – and it is these questionnaires that are seen as one of the main problems.
Continental Research director Colin Shaddick says poor questionnaire design must be tackled; and that often means tackling the client. “I have sat in meetings going through the tortuous process of designing a questionnaire. You get questionnaires designed by committee, where the objectives of the research have been blurred and everyone is determined to include as many questions as possible,” he says.
Another problem is an increasingly cynical public, who mistake genuine market research for sales pitches, or a covert means of adding their names to mailing lists. Some see the root of this problem being the industry’s inability to communicate exactly what it does.
All this comes as no surprise to those working within the industry. As Shaddick points out, in the 20 years he has been working in the business, response rates have been declining. But it was only relatively recently that the industry, and the MRS in particular, decided to tackle the issue. Tony Keane is chairman of ESA Market Research and also chairs the MRS Respondent Interviewer Interface (RII) – a committee set up in 1998 to tackle the problems of falling response rates.
A three-pronged attack
He says three main issues are being investigated as a result. The first is the quality of interviewers. “If people have a bad experience with an interviewer – for instance, someone who is unfriendly or rude – they won’t do it again. We have set up an accredited interviewer training scheme and we are talking to the major market research companies saying we would like them to incorporate this within their business. We provide the training and the idea is to have a single accredited scheme across the industry,” explains Keane.
But it seems as if this plan may yet be scuppered. Yi Men Lee is field project manager at Nunwood Consulting. She says that at a recent MRS meeting she attended, when the subject of accredited training was raised, many of the larger consultancies said they weren’t interested because they had their own training programmes. “I think the MRS is too soft on these issues. It should say ‘this is what we are doing’ and make everyone go along with it,” she says.
The second issue the MRS is dealing with is the fact that many people associate genuine market research with “double glazing salesmen”, according to Keane. He says: “We are looking into the areas of communication we have with the public and are devising ways of branding the industry so people know who we are. For instance, at present respondents are always given a thankyou leaflet at the end of an interview. However, they are all different, so we are developing the concept of one, more substantial, leaflet that is the same, no matter which company the field worker represents.
“Linked to this are interviewer ID cards. At the moment we have the daft situation where interviewers may be carrying around six or seven different cards, depending on which company they are conducting research for. So, we have produced a pilot ID card, which we tested about five months ago, and we are about to write to companies asking them to support its use.”
The final area being tackled by the MRS is questionnaires – the fact that they are generally too long and too complicated. Keane says the MRS has produced guidelines on how to produce simple and effective questionnaires, which he says he hopes companies will take on board.
Having a field day
Keane is an enthusiastic and hard-working proponent of change. But, as Lee points out, simply asking member companies to comply may not be enough. She says the real problem lies in the armies of field workers around the country. She believes many of them have been working in the sector too long and no longer care enough about maintaining high standards.
“I’ve seen field reps from other agencies at MRS meetings and they challenge every new idea that is put forward. So many of them are stuck in their ways and are reluctant to try anything new,” she says.
Lee says that her company believes the situation has become so bad that it is thinking of scrapping its fieldforce and starting from scratch with its own, in-house trained team, which it will ship out to various locations, rather than relying on local recruiters to hire field workers.
“We are recruiting teams of students, mothers and retired people; people who know what it is like to be a consumer and have not worked in research for the past 20 years. They have got a fresh approach to market research.
“We know that field workers go for the easy option and phone up a database of people whom they know will answer questionnaires. They speak to the same people time and time again and the market research industry knows this – it just does not want to face the issue,” she says.
But some people do seem to want to find out what is going on. The MRS and the British Market Research Association (BMRA) are monitoring response rates, tracking in which sectors they are declining most and comparing results by technique, for instance by comparing telephone with door-to-door interviews. Respondent satisfaction is also being tracked, a move that Keane believes will provide vital information for companies. But it will mean adding questions asking respondents to air their views.
Again this research has been piloted and is has yet to be officially introduced. Presumably it would need the approval and co-operation of member companies in order to go ahead. And there is no guarantee of that.
There is some cynicism within the industry. Windle says: “It is unrealistic to think we could do something to make response rates return to the levels they were at ten or 20 years ago. All this may lead to a fundamental change in the way research is carried out and rather than approaching people at random, the industry is likely to develop a database of research-friendly respondents. If sufficient care is taken in the way samples are designed and controlled, it is the way the industry is likely to go.”
However the industry responds, it is clear something must be done. As Keane points out: “This has to be a wake-up call to everyone. It has been a great industry to work in and a lot of people have done very well out of it, but 20 years down the line, if people won’t take part in interviews, the essence of the industry will disappear.”