Beware of “Professional” Survey Respondents!

Thanks to the Internet, conducting surveys has never been easier.  Being able to use the Web to conduct marketing research has greatly reduced the cost and time involved and has democratized the process for many companies.

While online surveys have increased simplicity and cost-savings, they have also given rise to a dangerous breed of respondents – “Professional” survey-takers.   

A “professional” respondent is one who actively seeks out online surveys offering paid incentives – cash, rewards, or some other benefit – for completing the survey.  In fact, many blogs and online articles tell of different sites people can go to find paid online surveys.

If your company conducts online surveys, “professionals” can render your findings useless.  In order for your survey to provide accurate and useful results, the people surveyed must be representative of the population you are measuring and selected randomly (that is, everyone from the population has an equal chance of selection).

“Professionals” subvert the sampling principles of representativeness and randomness simply because they self-select to take the survey.  The survey tool does not know that they are not part of the population to be measured, nor their probability of selection.  What’s more, online surveys exclude persons from the population without Internet access.  This results in a survey bias double-whammy.

In addition, “professionals” may simply go through a survey for the sake of the incentive.  Hence they may speed through it, paying little or no attention to the questions, or they may give untruthful answers.  Now your survey results are both biased and wrong.

 Minimizing the impact of “Professionals”

There are some steps you can take to protect your survey from “professionals,” including:

  • Maintain complete control of your survey distribution.  If possible, use a professional online survey panel company, such as e-Rewards, Greenfield Online, or Harris Interactive.  There are lots of others, and all maintain tight screening processes for their survey participants and tight controls for distribution of your survey;
  • If an online survey panel is out of your budget, perhaps you can build your own controlled e-mail list (following CAN-SPAM laws, of course).  E-mailing your survey is less prone to bias than keeping it on a Web site for anyone to join.
  • Have adequate screening criteria in your survey.  If you can get respondents to sign in using a passcode and/or ask questions at the beginning, which terminate the survey for people whose responses indicate they are not representative of the population, you can reduce the number of “professionals”;
  • Put “speed bumps” into your survey.  An example would be to have a dummy question inside that simply says: “Select the 3rd radio bottom from the top.”  Put two or three bumps in your survey.  A respondent who answers two or more of those bump questions incorrectly is likely to be a speeder and the survey can be instructed to terminate;
  • Ask validation questions.  That is, ask a question one way and then later in the survey ask it in another form, and see if the responses are consistent.  If they’re not, then the respondent may be a “professional” or a speeder.

The Internet may have made marketing research easier, but it has also made it more susceptible to bias.  The tools to conduct marketing research have become much easier and more user-friendly, but that doesn’t change the principles of statistics and marketing research.  Online surveys, no matter how easily, fast, or cheaply they can be implemented, will waste time and money if those principles are violated.

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4 Responses to “Beware of “Professional” Survey Respondents!”

  1. researchrants Says:

    This is kind of hilarious. Have you ever seen the deeply flawed research being conducted by outfits like the ones you’ve mentioned? Professional respondents are an issue, but I don’t believe they’re anywhere near as poisonous to the industry as the twin problems of bad survey design and respondent abuse.

    • analysights Says:

      Researchrants, I couldn’t agree with you more about bad survey design and respondent abuse. And I also agree that they are bigger problems than “professionals.” But it is definitely important to make people who do online surveys aware of the problems they can cause.

      You mentioned the deeply flawed research by some of the panel companies. Can you elaborate? The objective of this blog is to help firms get the most out of their marketing research and analytics.

      Thanks!

  2. researchrants Says:

    I’ve collected many examples on my blog; lots of poorly written questionnaires, filled with too many questions and matrix after matrix that almost guarantees straight-line responses. Just one example: http://researchrants.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/sweet-fancy-matrix/

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