A Typical-Length Survey or A Few Shorter Ones?

Most online surveys today take between 10 and 15 minutes, with a few going as long as 25 to 30 minutes. As marketing researchers, we have long pontificated that surveys should be a reasonable length, as longer ones tend to cause respondents to disengage in many ways: speeding through, skipping questions, even abandoning the survey. Most marketers realize this, and the 10-15 minute survey seems to be the norm. But I wonder how many marketing researchers – on both the client and supplier side – have ever considered the length of a survey from a strategic, rather than a tactical, point of view.

Sure, a typical-length survey is not super long, and is often cost effective for a client. After all, the client can survey several people about several topics in a relatively short time, for a set price, and can get results quickly. But sometimes I believe that instead of one 15-minute survey, some clients might benefit more by conducting two 7- or 8-minute, or three 5-minute surveys, stretched out over time. Marketing researchers on both sides will likely disagree with me here. After all, multiple shorter surveys can cost more to administer. However, I believe that – in the long-run – clients will derive value from the more frequent, shorter surveys that would offset their cost. Multiple, shorter surveys will benefit clients in the following ways:

Focus

As marketing research suppliers, it is our job to make sure we understand the client’s key business problem. Many times, clients have several problems that must be addressed. We need to help clients look at all of their business problems and prioritize them in the order of benefit that their resolution would bring. If we could get the client’s survey focused on the one or two problems whose resolution would result in the most positive difference, we can keep the survey short, with more targeted questions. As a result, the client doesn’t get bombarded with tons of data tables or reports with lots of recommendations and end up immobilized wondering which ones should be implemented first. On the contrary, the client will receive a few, very direct, insights about how to respond to these key problems.

Reduced Incentive Costs

Since surveys are shorter, respondents may be willing to do them for little or no incentive. This can save the client money.

Higher Response Rates

Surveys that are 10-15 minutes long generally get decent response rates. However, a survey that’s 3, 5, or 7 minutes long will likely get excellent response rates. Why? Because they’re more convenient, straight to the point, and can be knocked off quickly. As a result, respondents are less willing to put it off. Respondents are also less likely to terminate the survey, speed through it, or skip questions.

Increased Trust by Respondents

Because you didn’t waste their time with the first survey, respondents may be more inclined to participate in your subsequent surveys. If they took your 5-minute survey today, then you send them another 5-minute survey four to six weeks from now, they are likely to trust that this survey won’t take long either, and will likely respond to it. Of course, the key here is to space the surveys out. You don’t want to send all three at once!

More Reliable Data

As mentioned above, respondents are less likely to speed, terminate, or skip questions to a short survey than they are with a longer one. As a result, there will be less non-response error and more truthful responses in the data, and hence more trustworthy findings.

Ability to Act on Results Faster

Because the survey is short and to-the-point, and response rates are higher, the client can achieve the desired number of completed surveys sooner than if the survey were longer, so the survey doesn’t have to be in the field as long. And because the survey is short, the time the marketing research firm needs to tabulate and analyze the data is much shorter. Hence the client can start acting on the insights and implementing the recommendations much sooner.

Discovery

What would happen if a client conducted a typical-length survey and found a theme emerging in open-ended questions or a trend in responses among a certain demographic group? The client may want to study that. But custom research is expensive. If the client did a typical-length survey, the budget may not be there to do another survey to investigate that newly discovered theme or trend. With a shorter survey, the cost may be somewhat lower, so funds might be left in the budget for another survey. In addition, if the client is scheduling subsequent shorter surveys, the learnings from the first survey can be used to shape questions for further investigation in those upcoming surveys.

The Shorter Survey May Be Enough

Several times, problems are interconnected, or generated by other problems. If research suppliers helped clients isolate their one or two biggest problems, and focused on those, the client might act on the insights and eliminate those problems. The resolution of those problems may also provide solutions to, or help extinguish, the lesser-priority problems. As a result, future surveys may not be needed. In that case, the research supplier did its job – solving the client’s problem in the shortest, most economical, and most effective manner possible.

Granted, many clients probably can’t do things this way. There are economies of scale in doing one longer survey as opposed to two or three shorter ones. Moreover, the client probably has several stakeholders, each of whom has a different opinion of which problem is most important. And each problem may have a different urgency to those stakeholders. This is why it is so important for the research supplier to get the client’s stakeholders and top management on board with this. As research suppliers, it is our job to inform and educate the client and its stakeholders on the research approach that maximizes the best interest of the client as a whole; and if that is not possible, work with those stakeholders to identify second-best solutions. But once the key issues – problems, budget, politics, and urgency – are on the table, research suppliers can work with the client to develop the shortest, most focused, most cost effective survey possible.

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