Bad Respondent Experiences are Killing the Insights Industry


By Andrew Grenville, Chief Research Officer, Maru/Matchbox

“The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.” - Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland

I recently joined a survey research community so that I could see first-hand the respondent experience. What happened was so surreal and disturbing that I felt like Alice in Wonderland. I was presented with bewildering nonsensical choices, over and over again. Finally, I landed on the community’s Facebook page, which was peppered with “engagement” statistics which show a morbid fascination with death. I now better understand why response rates are dropping.

It started so innocently

I received a survey invite from a market research community I had recently joined. Clicking on it, I was sent to an opening page that asked me to enter my age. I was told I qualified for a survey and was sent to a large, well-known survey router service. The landing page told me the survey was 18 minutes long and to click the link to begin the survey. So, I did.

Then I was met with a screen that, after whirling a bit, said “Unfortunately, based on your responses to pre-qualification questions, it looks like your profile isn’t a great fit for the survey we had in mind for you. Hold on while we check to see if we have something better…” At least they let me down gently and promised me another survey.

But I was a bit puzzled, as the only pre-qualification question I had answered was age and, according to that, I qualified. Thinking it must be a mistake, I clicked to find another survey. I was told I qualified and that the survey was 22 minutes. Clicking onward, I again got the whirling screen and the “Unfortunately, based on your responses…” statement. So I clicked again and got a 17-minute survey this time. But again, I faced the whirling screen and the “Unfortunately…” message. Feeling like I was tumbling down a rabbit hole, I again clicked, and got the same messages of acceptance and then rejection, over and over.

Then I noticed the “skip this survey” button. After I had skipped all the available surveys, things got weirder.

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro

I tumbled through cyberspace only to end up back at the community landing page where they showed me their Facebook feed, which presumably is for respondent engagement. I noticed this eye-catching but improbable statistic: “Air bags kill 1 person for every 22 lives they save.” “What’s the message here?” I wondered. Are they trying to say airbags are good or bad? Puzzled, I clicked on to the Facebook feed and scrolled down.

What I found were a long series of messages, all focusing around one of two themes. One was improbable odds (“Men are 6 times more likely than women to be struck by lightning”). The other theme was a rather disturbing preoccupation with death. Here are just a few fun facts from their community Facebook feed:

  • “You are more likely to die on your birthday, than on any other day of the year”;

  • “More than 10 people a year are killed by vending machines”;

  • “Every year more than 2500 left-handed people are killed from using right-handed products”;

  • “In the US between 2004-2015 there were 10 cases involving dogs shooting their owners…Versus only one case involving a cat.”

Perhaps realizing this was a little dark, they offered up this cheery thought: “In the course of a lifetime you will, while sleeping, eat 70 assorted insects and 10 spiders.” Respondent engagement indeed.

I’m melting…

If I had ever gotten to a survey, it might have been yours. I was, after all, sent to a very large well-known router. Would I have been happy and ready to pay attention to a 22-minute survey, after having been told I qualified and then told I didn’t, over and over again? No.

This is the kind of respondent experience that is killing our industry. Lisa Wilding-Brown makes an excellent point when she calls respondents the “polar ice caps” of the survey world. Response rates are melting away and we need to stop that trend.

I’d encourage everyone to review their survey respondent experience. Don’t just test a link. See what really happens when you try to do a survey. We, as an industry, need to do better.

Check out Global Research Business Networks’s (GRBN) free e-book Engage: 101 tips to improve the research participant user experience. It’s full of useful ideas offered by a wide array of industry experts. And check out their ENGAGE MR initiative. It “is a coaching program which enables participating companies to effectively and efficiently create great research participant user experiences, which deliver strong long-term brand equity for end-clients.” These are the kinds of initiatives the industry needs.

At Maru/Blue we take the respondent experience seriously. We extensively profile our community members so that they don’t have to answer the same qualifying questions over and over. We already know people want the survey experience to be frictionless. And we treat our respondents like people, not “sample.” We know what they like about research, as well as what they don’t like. The result, a happy community that provides the kind of results that are boringly reliable.

For more on respondent engagement and sample quality, check out my book The Insights Revolution: Questioning Everything or contact us.

Let’s make sure our respondents don’t go down the rabbit hole. We can do better.

InsightsMonica Low