US Researchers Battle Consumer 'Survey Fatigue'

03 October 2006

CHICAGO: The average US household now receives two-to-three market research calls every week - and has started to rebel. "Sometimes, when I'm in the mood, I toy with them a little," admits one consumer. "I pretend I don't understand what product they're talking about."

The fast-growing resistance to participating in surveys makes it increasingly difficult and costly to garner accurate data for America's top marketers.

So much so that last Saturday thirty senior market research executives from across the industry convened in Chicago for a roundtable crisis meeting. Represented among the delegates were Procter & Gamble, General Motors, IBM and McDonald's

The Research Industry Summit for Improving Respondent Cooperation bemoaned the Catch 22 of its profession: No-one really knows whether people who don't answer surveys are similar to those who do. Because they don't answer surveys.

However, there is evidence that non-respondents tend to be disproportionately male, black, Hispanic and young. 30% of households headed by consumers aged 25 and under only have cellphones and are impossible or too expensive to reach by phone.

Though no truly reliable overall figures are available, almost every researcher has seen participation erode in recent years, with successful contact rates below 10% now increasingly common.

Moreover, surveys tend to poll the same people again and again, many of them 'professional respondents' who demand dollars in return for data.

According to research conducted by ComScore Networks, just 0.25% of the population supplies 32% of responses to online surveys, reported Simon Chadwick, principal of Cambiar, a Phoenix-based consultancy. Nationwide, 50% of all survey responses come from less than 5% of the population.

Such inadequate samples have led to fears that survey research may be getting less reliable. "We're perpetuating a fraud," said Chadwick.

Among those who write the checks for research bills, opinions differed. "It's like the hole in the ozone layer," opined Shari Morwood, vp-worldwide market research at IBM. "Everyone knows it's a growing problem. But they just ignore it and go on to the next project."

But Michelle Salazar, vp-global brand and business research at McDonald's differed from her colleague. "A low response doesn't necessarily lead to a biased response," she said

Even the mighty P&G is not immune to these problems. Kim Dedeker, vp-consumer and market knowledge, offered one example in which online and mail surveys on an instant-coffee concept came up with diametrically opposed results.

"If I had only had the online result in this particular case, I would have taken a bad decision right to the top management," she said.

Perhaps the delegates should have invited a few consumers to join them in their round-table deliberations. In return for an attendance fee Joe and Josephine Public might have suggested . . . exactly that.

Paul Donato, chief research officer at Nielsen Media Research reported that his firm's respondent rates had risen from 36% to 45% over the past five years. The secret? They are generously paid for their two-year commitments.

Data sourced from AdAge (USA); additional content by WARC staff