If market researchers are to be believed, a large proportion of the UK population is cynical about surveys, distrusts guarantees about confidentiality and is unable to distinguish between research and selling. In short, Joe Public is suffering from research fatigue and would rather be left alone.
If this is true, and judging by discussions taking place within the industry at the moment it would seem to be, the UK could be about to follow the US and make it standard practice to pay respondents.
It would be a radical step, with huge cost implications. Conservative estimates suggest that paying respondents a flat rate of about &£10 a time would increase fieldwork costs by 15 to 20 per cent. If the policy were introduced, in the short term it would put a massive strain on research companies already funding the implementation of the European Working Time rules.
Clients could be persuaded to carry some of the financial burden if there was evidence response rates would improve. If the market research industry has to absorb all of the additional expense, investment in other areas could suffer. Those arguing against the introduction of a payment system are adamant, for example, that the public’s apparent weariness would be better addressed through improved training in questionnaire design and interviewer techniques.
Respondent fatigue and the difficulty in convincing the public of the merits of helping with data collection has concerned the industry for some time. In fact, the subject was debated in March at the Market Research Society (MRS) conference in Brighton. Prior to this, a 1996 MRS Research Development Foundation (RDF) study on Public Co-operation in Market Research highlighted the need to tackle the problem, as did the 1997 View from the Clipboard survey conducted for Marketing Market Research, a body that promotes the market research industry, and the Direct Marketing Association/Henley Dataculture project.
One important development was the creation of the MRS Respondent Interviewer Interface (RII) Committee, which is now assessing whether payments are the way forward, or if this can avoided by improving the way interviewers work and interact with the public. The idea is that if the job of the interviewer is enhanced – by focusing on the pressures they are under, for example, pay levels and the volume of work – respondent co-operation and satisfaction rates will also benefit.
IRB International managing director Don Beverly, who chairs the RII committee, says the issue of respondent fatigue must be addressed before the situation deteriorates. “If the industry spent more money on training and questionnaire design, fatigue would not be such a problem. People need to feel they can interact with the person doing the interview, yet, even if you are the best interviewer in the world, you will struggle if the questionnaire is poorly thought out,” he says.
Beverly says the committee wants to introduce a system to measure respondent satisfaction and refusal rates, as well as collect data on the volumes and costs involved in recruiting, training and retaining interviewers.
At the MRS conference, David Bright, head of consumer and market intelligence at Barclays Bank, was invited to join the committee to provide a client perspective. Barclays has spent the past 18 months revamping the way it generates customer feedback on its services by encouraging respondents to have a conversation with the interviewer literally. “The survey remains structured, but customers can talk freely about their relationship with Barclays, which means we get a broader view of what people feel about the company – good and bad,” he says.
“In some instances, the interviews are longer, but since May no one has dropped out during an interview.
“We use digital technology to record what is said and often play customers’ comments at internal presentations to show Barclays’ executives exactly what their customers are saying.”
The length of interviews is one of the main reasons cited for respondent fatigue. Diana Brown, chairman of client trade body the Association of Users of Research Agencies (AURA), supports what the RII is trying to do and urges the industry to look closely at why people refuse to be interviewed. “Research must be made more relevant and, in many cases, shorter.
“We need better samples of respondents, and must not ask the same question in ten different ways just to make sure people are telling the truth. But even if payment is introduced as standard, there is no guarantee it will make them more willing to take part,” she says.
One dilemma researchers face if they introduce a blanket payment scheme is knowing whether the people they give incentives to would have happily co-operated without them. FFwd Precision Marketing, whose clients include Toshiba and Prudential, employs research psychologist Dr Tamsin Addison as head of its research division. She says paying all respondents would only work if certain safeguards were put in place. “Some people taking part in a survey feel obliged to make it work because they have agreed to participate. There is, therefore, a risk that if you pay people, they feel obliged to give the right answers, she says.
“It will also skew your sample because those people interested in taking part will be the ones who want the money most.”
Addison admits payments already occur in some areas of UK research, such as pharmaceutical drug studies involving doctors, and surveys of leading business executives who are required to disclose sensitive financial information. “If they feel uneasy about accepting payment, there is usually an option to donate the fee to charity. If an interview is going to take a long time, there is always pressure to offer an incentive.”
If the research sector is to avoid paying respondents, it must find a way to win back consumers who have been willing participants in the past but now avoid being interviewed, often because they have had a bad experience with an interviewer who perhaps understated the length of the interview at the onset.
Research consultant and former sociologist Iain Noble, who spoke at this year’s MRS conference, is strongly opposed to paying respondents. He believes only a hardcore ten per cent of the UK population would refuse to take part in research under any circumstances, and that the majority of people are happy to help if they do not see it as a chore. Noble comments: “There is not enough evidence to justify routine payments, which I believe would be relatively ineffective and inefficient.
“The case for payments does not address the real causes of survey non-response, and views response difficulties as a problem with respondents rather than professional practice.” However, he accepts payment is necessary in some instances, such as when someone is asked to keep a diary.
Consumers attending focus groups are usually paid fees ranging from &£15 to more than &£50. The Association of Qualitative Research Practitioners (AQRP), which has about 1,200 members, is concerned about the quality of the respondents being recruited and is introducing a respondent contract that will require people to prove their identify and confirm they meet the research criteria. They will be told that, if the information they give is false, they could be prosecuted for obtaining money by deception.
“Payment is essential to get people to attend groups, but it does not stop some respondents from giving the wrong information, while others simply enjoy going to groups and being paid for it, which can lead to mis-recruitment,” says AQRP chairman Prosper Riley-Smith.
The UK market research industry is desperate to find ways to improve response rates and convince consumers it is important for them to take part, not only in commercial surveys but social studies too. Over the past two years, the National Centre for Social Research has paid people to take part in six surveys as part of an experiment to determine the effect of incentives. Potential respondents were either paid upfront, promised the fee if they took part or given the option to donate the money to charity. Paying the fee before any questions were asked proved to be the most effective recruitment method.
Meanwhile, different amounts were tested: either &£3, &£5 or &£10. It was found that in many cases paying &£5 attracted the same quota response as &£10.
“We looked at the effect on response rates, which did rise slightly, the quality of the results and the cost-effectiveness. One important finding is that the interviewers offering payment did not have to make so many calls, which should be seen as a cost saving,” says director of survey methods Peter Lynn.
Many in the research industry believe it is inevitable the UK will follow the US and introduce routine payments. Others hope this huge step can be avoided by reviewing how interviews are conducted. Whatever the case, market research companies face having to find extra funds to win over a general public that is getting tired of answering questions.