Big Data

The Internet is killing off marketing surveys — & it’s for the best

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For decades, marketers relied on customer surveys to gauge sentiment about products and services and to make important go/no go decisions.

Though their form evolved from mall intercepts to telephone surveys to online instruments, surveys were the gold standard that companies relied on to validate and justify their decisions.

Then, about eight years ago, people started raising concerns about respondent quality; and as social media took off, some dared to wonder aloud whether online ratings and reviews were eliminating the need for surveys altogether. Some pundits began declaring that survey research was going the way of the rotary telephone.

But the industry continued to thrive — until recently. Finally, the prophets are being proven right, and we’re witnessing the demise of the lengthy, grid-question littered, rating-scale driven survey as we know it.

What’s happening, and why now? The answer lies in the convergence of a few crucial developments: the ubiquity of mobile devices, shortened attention spans, the availability of big data, and an emerging consumer ethos that demands transparency and reciprocity from big brands.

As mobile phones and tablets continue their march to become people’s first and only digital devices, consumers are becoming even more intolerant of lengthy surveys. They simply drop out unless questions are fed to them one or two at a time, can be viewed without endless scrolling, and  can be answered in the time it takes for the elevator to arrive. (Not surprisingly, Google has figured this out and is leading the charge towards more consumable surveys delivered in individual bites to a broad audience, both online and on mobile devices.)

But there is a broader dynamic at work here: Who wants to be a mere respondent? As it turns out, fewer and fewer people do.

As social media becomes our primary source of information and discourse, people are increasingly intolerant of one-way, blind communication. They ask themselves, “Why should I invest time and candor in responding to questions posed by some person or entity that won’t even reveal their identity, let alone respond?”

Sending out a tweet or posting a review is much more gratifying to today’s consumers, who have come to expect real-time feedback from fellow consumers, and often the brand itself, as a reward for the effort of commenting in the first place. The survey lacks that instant and interpersonal gratification that social media easily provides.

Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of panel companies, survey results are increasingly suspect. Like the housebound piece-rate workers of the early 20th century, professional survey takers today carve out a meager income by answering as many questions from as many sources as quickly as possible, opting for speed over candor. Unlike their predecessors, they can and do create multiple, bogus identities to keep the piece work (a.k.a. surveys) coming. While panel companies take ever more sophisticated measures to weed out fraudulent respondents, concerns about “respondent quality” are real and growing.

Big data is also reducing the need for quantitatively rigorous, predictive surveys. Why ask people what they like, what they’ve done, or what they intend to do when you can learn or predict the answers to all of those questions by harvesting and analyzing the masses of behavioral data already available?

This isn’t to suggest that consumers’ voices, opinions, and feedback are no longer necessary. On the contrary, partnering with consumers is more essential than ever if brands are to stay relevant and their products desirable.

But the death – or at least the declining reliance on – the survey means that we can engage with consumers in a more reciprocal, dynamic, and democratic way. That’s the key to a healthier, more durable relationship. From social media to customer communities, there’s an ever-evolving set of tools that allow brands to glean customer insight without having them select from a prescribed set of questions and answers. Pioneering brands have found that by pooling these resources, they can not only understand consumers’ true priorities but also drive real business change.

Julie Wittes Schlack is senior vice president, innovation and design, at Communispace, a provider of online consumer insights communities for market research.


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