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Benefits Of Web Surveying Add Up

by Alf Nucifora

I was recently asked by a client for an opinion about the validity of web surveys. My immediate inclination was to denigrate the methodology, in the process trotting out the commonly heard negatives, e.g., not random enough, questionable sample composition, hard to verify the data, etc. But, online research is now beyond the "prove it" stage. The marketing research community, if it chooses to be fair, will concede the point that there is now an irreversible decline in traditional data collection, e.g. phone/mail surveys. The techniques are too costly, too laborious to execute, and subject to limited response rates. Who has the time or the inclination to complete a mail survey or respond to the rote questions from the phone surveyor in a far off boiler room? In the meantime, web surveying is estimated to have achieved a penetration rate of fifteen to twenty percent of the total quantitative survey space. That makes a lot of sense in an environment where there are now in excess of one hundred and ninety million Internet users in the United States and Canada alone.

Overcoming the Objections

The objections to online research are understandable and, to some degree, rational. But, in every case, there are equally valid counter arguments or mitigating factors.

It's Not Random Enough…Neither, for that matter, is the telephone, given the degree of phone screening that currently prevails and the ubiquity of voice mail as a barrier to entry into the home or office.

Response Rate…Typical response rates will run one to two percent for mail, ten to fifteen percent, for phone. For online surveys that number grows to as high as thirty to thirty-five percent where respondent names are drawn from weighted panels. The response rate is even better for B2B research where reliable lists are more readily available, e.g. clients and prospects.

They Tend to Lie On the Internet…But, so can they on the telephone. Ever wondered how many administrative assistants fill out the mail surveys for their boss? Internet respondents will freely reveal private demographic information. Ironically, the Internet delivers a perception of anonymity which is greater than the phone or snail mail.

Cost…Committed web survey user companies maintain that they are not yet seeing significant cost savings although the average twenty-minute phone interview can cost in the range of thirty to fifty dollars per completed interview, versus seven to ten dollars for one completed online. One suspects that cost decreases as familiarity of use increases.

Timeliness…This is where the online survey wins out hands down. Reports and summaries are developed real-time and can be funneled directly to management in a simple, easy-to-digest fashion (resplendent in color, graphics and charts). Traditional phone/mail surveys require laborious data collection, tabbing, summary and distribution…a decidedly non-real-time scenario.

Bad Lists…Unquestionably, email lists are subject to corruption unless the online research is conducted using names drawn from a reliable panel or verified database. The risk of bad research is real and palpable and although it attracts more visibility in the online universe, the disease infests every environment that depends on a list of names for its livelihood.

The one area where online research has not proven popular is in the qualitative arena, specifically online focus groups. John Maben of the Denver-based marketing research firm, TwentyTen Research (and a facilitator of online surveys), expresses the view that the jury is still out on the subject. Notes Maben, "It's still a difficult process…lots of typing and a chat room environment that's not always conducive to delivering rich diagnostic feedback." Even though improved instant-messaging software and web casting technology have enhanced the process, there is still something about "seeing the whites of their eyes." Traditional face-to-face focus group interaction will always provide a degree of personal involvement and insight that the online environment has difficulty matching. Even for the fast-fingered typist.

Who's Doing It?

Current online surveying tends to focus around customer-related needs:

  • Market analysis
  • New product development
  • Customer satisfaction studies
  • Consumer loyalty/retention modeling
  • Quality measurement
  • E-commerce service evaluation
  • Employee surveys
  • Advertising effectiveness
  • Survey environments requiring feedback from high-level managerial functions (where time is tight).

Says Joel Friedman, CEO of SurveyWriter.com, "There can be no doubt as to the validity and growing acceptance of the web survey. Use of the methodology hasn't grown faster because most market research firms are conservative in their outlook and practice." Friedman's four year old firm has conducted over a million online surveys for more than one hundred and fifty clients including the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Frito-Lay, All State and General Mills.

Equally successful in the online survey space is market leader, WebSurveyor, affordable and downloadable software that allows a company to customize its online research in a speedy and efficient fashion. Says CMO, Tom Lueker, "We are not a marketing research tool, as much as a facilitator of customer feedback about anything and everything from product attributes to customer service. It's also a proven listening tool for building a relationship with the customer."

The WebSurveyor product has been used by more than two thousand clients worldwide (including Marriott, IBM and Motley Fool), with fifty thousand surveys hosted and four million responses processed. The protocol is simple. The user company or buyer downloads WebSurveyor's software, develops a simple, yet customized survey from sample templates, integrates the survey document into the company database (client/prospect) and emails the survey document out to a prescribed list which never leaves the client's hands. Responsibility for the process rarely lies with the IT function, residing instead in Sales and Marketing, HR and Finance.

Keith Halasy, Senior Marketing Manager for Sagebrush Corporation attests to the ease, value an efficiency of online research. According to Halasy, he was able to craft a twenty-question, in-depth customer survey prior to a new product launch, email it to an extensive client list and turn the project around within three-days. The response rate hit 21%, but, more importantly, summary results in chart form were delivered real-time, providing exceptional ease of reporting. Halasy's claims are now being validated by a number of reputable users, all of whom are joining the growing band of web survey converts.

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