Survey Participation: Charlotte Cornish, FDS International

As an industry we continually debate how to halt falling response rates and engage respondents more in the research process. But how many of us can say hand on heart that we put this into practice in reality. By Charlotte Cornish

Charlotte Cornish
FDS International
Managing director

2006 Managing director, FDS International and chief operating officer, Munro Group
2005 Consultancy for The Pension Service (the DWP Agency)
1997 Managing director, The Future Foundation
1995 BT
1989 The Henley Centre
1986 Burke RSL
1985 BMRB

Are you engaged?

As an industry we continually debate how to halt falling response rates and engage respondents more in the research process. But how many of us can say hand on heart that we put this into practice in reality. By Charlotte Cornish

How times have changed. Back in the mid-1980s when I started working in market research, my desk had five items on it – an ashtray, a telephone, a pad of paper, a pencil and a rubber. Computer tables had small holes down the side of them (for anyone under the age of 40 – they were there to help line up the paper) and the most hi-tech presentational aid was the overhead projector. CATI was only just taking off and there were still heated discussions about the validity of a sample that ignored the 20% of households without a telephone. Response rates for the National Readership Survey (NRS) were over 80% and advanced analytics was getting started – factor and cluster analysis were the flavours of the month – exciting times.

Witness my desk now – no ashtray, of course, but all manner of technology: a Blackberry, a lap top with docking station and, probably my favourite of all, a USB stick with a gigabyte of memory. Printed tables are a memory, I just use statistical software to conduct complex analyses and good old Powerpoint to visualise results for clients. Internet panels are old news – Web 2.0 has taken over as the new frontier. And who cares about response rates anymore – Jed Christiansen (Prediction Markets: Practical Experiments in Small Markets and Behaviours Observed) says that in prediction markets a sample as small 16 can be large enough to provide meaningful results.

Resisting the urge to overload
All change then for the market researcher but has the average respondent’s experience changed as much. Back in the 1980s, 45-minute questionnaires were not unusual, the NRS was at least 30 minutes even when shuffle cards were introduced. But the internet aside, the simple economics are in favour of longer questionnaires and discussion guides. Given that the cost of recruitment in both qualitative and quantitative interviewer moderated research has risen faster than the cost of conducting the interview, the pressure is on to ask people as much as possible once you’ve captured them. And even on the internet, there is an urge to overload the respondent even though the downside of long questionnaires is well documented (Sandra Rathod and Andrea LaBruna, ESOMAR, Conference on Panel Research, Budapest, April 2005 – questionnaire length and fatigue effects).

As market researchers we are all happy to “talk the talk” when it comes to respondent engagement but who can really say they “walk the walk” when a client wants to add yet an-other statement to an attitude battery or just ask about one more product innovation or one more brand attribute? And, incredibly, measures to combat falls in response rate include suggestions to add more questions to all our surveys.

Evidence of change
More fool us. Not only has the world changed – the wider environment in which surveys are conducted – but also our respondents’ skills and characteristics have changed too. Let’s look at some of the evidence:

Respondents are better educated – leaving aside the arguments about the validity of grades in A levels and GCSE grades, it is certain that more people have first or higher degrees (for example, 13% in 2005 compared with 7% in 1991) and more people have achieved at least one academic qualification (73.5% in 2005 compared with 58.3% in 1991) (British Household Panel Survey/ISER).

The age structure of the UK has changed – there are 500,000 fewer 16- to 24-year-olds now than in 1986 compared to 2007 and 600,000 more 55- to 64-year-olds (General Actuaries Department) and the older group have the highest proportion of disposable income of all age groups.

More women are in positions of responsibility today – in the mid-1990s, 8%of all managers were women compared with 35% today (ONS Labour Force Survey).

People are more demanding – we hear this all the time. People want convenience and by this we mean they want to interact with organisations at a time and place that suit them. This has been enhanced by the desire to fit too many activities into too little time – latest ONS Time Use data shows that men with children only have 3.85 hours a week that they can call their own (ONS 2005). The internet has also played a big part in this trend. Because it is now possible for organisations to have 24-hour remote access, people now expect it.

The list could go on – see the chart on the right for a list of some of the critical dynamics we believe are shaping the UK and its inhabitants today.

The sophisticated consumer
What does this mean for us as market researchers? I would suggest that the days of the market researcher as an independent, objective observer are numbered. Today we need to accept that most people are educated and experienced enough as consumers to play more than just a guinea pig or respondent role in research. Most people in the UK today are sophisticated consumers, moving between markets and making informed decisions on a daily basis. Can we believe that they will be content with a less participative role in research when they are demanding a more active role in their consumption choices?

To be engaging today, the research techniques we use need to be truly participative. It is not just a question of using pretty pictures, avatars and cunning questionnaire design – we need to tell participants why we are doing the research and how they can help us find a solution. Deliberative polls and citizen juries, where participants get to meet and digest information from experts and then give a considered response, alongside new Web 2.0 techniques that really aim to get people to join in real conversations, are the way forward.

At the very least, we should share the findings of our research wherever possible and institute feedback loops so that participants can enter into a more in-depth conversation if they want to. In this way, we can enter into a new era of interactive research where the participant (and by the way, we should certainly stop calling them respondents) feels as engaged as the researcher and the client in the outcome. The benefits include a possible halt to falling response rates, currently running at 1% a year for social surveys (MRS Field Conference 2006), as we get higher participation from those who are turned off by the current process. Deeper, more considered responses. It will also give a more up-to-date image of our industry – let’s get out of our ivory tower and treat people with the respect they deserve.

Charlotte Cornish
Hill House, Highgate Hill, London, N19 5NA
T: 020 7272 7766
F: 020 7272 4468

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