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Are You Alienating Your Customers With Spam Surveys?

An unwanted survey is spam. As an industry, we need to take a hard stance on long, boring and unwanted spam surveys. The reputation of the research practice depends on it.



By Ray Poynter

The proliferation of unwanted surveys is an urgent issue for the market research industry. Over the years, unwanted surveys (including unsolicited telephone calls, emails and popups) have damaged the relationship brands have with their customers. They have also significantly damaged the relationship market research has with potential participants.

Concern about surveys is not new, but it’s an issue that’s more critical than ever. Back in 2013, the Australian Government issued a warning to its online citizens to be wary of survey-related spam. This sort of warning heightens the public’s alienation from the survey process, damaging the overall reputation of market research.

In the ebook No Spam Surveys, Vision Critical CEO Scott Miller, makes a case for why traditional surveys are no longer sufficient in today’s business world. “The era of traditional surveys is over,” he writes in the ebook, arguing that companies should consider new tactics to engage and better understand the empowered customer.

What is a spam survey?

A spam survey—just like spam in general—is an unsolicited survey that’s irrelevant to the recipient.

The main features of a spam survey are:

  • They are sent to people who haven’t opted-in and who didn’t anticipate receiving them.
  • People are receiving too many survey requests, from too many different sources.
  • This can be because they are too long, but it can also be because they are written in a way that is unengaging.
  • They’re often too general purpose; people find the questions irrelevant to them and their lives.

The consequences of spam surveys

Customers have become so annoyed and alienated by spam surveys that many people have withdrawn some or all of their cooperation with companies. Surveys are now collecting the views of a tiny minority of the population—creating doubts about the validity of the responses.

Writing in ESOMAR’s Research World (November 2015), Kathleen Frankovic highlighted that in the U.S. in 1997 “a rigorous effort by public poll” could achieve a 60 percent response rate and regular polls could reach 36 percent. Today, even the best studies only achieve 9 percent—and most achieve much less than that.

The second consequence of the rise of spam surveys is that the responses provided to long and boring surveys are plagued with problems of people satisficing (i.e. finding quick and easy ways to complete the survey, rather than answering the questions properly). Researchers and clients often approach this as a problem of bad respondents, but it is mostly a problem of bad surveys. We do not need to change the people—we need to change the survey process!

The research industry has been fighting the wrong battles

Over the last 15 years, governments around the world have been passing “do not call” legislation, followed by restrictions on unsolicited emails and messages. In each case, the research industry has lobbied to have its activities excepted from the legislation. Due to the success of these lobbying activities, the research industry has carried on using spam surveys, increasing the public’s alienation from the research process.

This process is still continuing. In the U.S., the FCC is currently proposing to tighten the rules to ban uninvited calls to mobile phones. Not surprisingly, researchers are lobbying for the ability to continue contacting respondents and for FCC to clarify the limits of the proposed new regulation. Some people in the industry have been calling for a different approach. For example, writing in Advertising Age, Vision Critical Founder Andrew Reid argues that FCC’s autodialer ban will lead to innovation in marketing and market research.

The market research industry needs to have a long-term view. The status quo when it comes to spam surveys will secure a short-term commercial advantage, but it will continue to erode the long-term relationship between the public and research.

Alternatives to spam surveys

As I discussed in my May 2015 post Why Long Surveys are Dead, there are a growing number of alternatives to spam surveys such as insight communities, in-the-moment research and observational research.

In his ebook, Scott Miller recommends a four-pronged approach to replacing the out-dated spam survey model. Overall, these steps will help companies avoid sending spam surveys and become a more customer-centric enterprise. He recommends:

  1. Treating customers like people. Instead of boring them, empower your customers with feedback as well as questions. Prove to them that you’re listening.
  2. Engaging with customers over time. Creating a dialogue with customers, rather than conducting ad-hoc projects, shows customers you’re interested in them as people. Ongoing engagement removes the need to keep asking the same questions (e.g. profiling questions).
  3. Drawing on insight within your company. Treat every interaction with a customer as both a chance to delight the customer and a chance to increase your knowledge about what customers want and think. In many cases, the answer to a business question will already exist within the insight you already have. Do not resort to a survey as your first option—at best, yet another survey should be the last option.
  4. Breaking down internal silos. To fully utilize the existing insight within your company, you need to ensure that information flows freely around the enterprise. In order to engage with customers over time, you need to know what the organization is planning. Ensure that every part of the company is committed to listening to and engaging with customers.

Should all uninvited surveys be banned?

Within market research, there are some occasions where a suitably worded invitation might be applicable. If you’ve put together a conference, for instance, a one-off survey with attendees might be appropriate. However, it’s still necessary to check whether the audience is going to see the invitation as intrusive or unwanted. Ask yourself: will they find the survey boring or irrelevant? If the answer is yes, you might want to rethink your approach.

There’s also a very different case to be made for social research. Many projects exist where the public good depends on contacting a representative sample—for example, studies where the government needs to understand the unemployment figures in order to be able target expenditure and assistance. In these cases, society needs to trade-off the disutility of unwanted surveys against the public good the information can provide.

If market researchers stop using spam surveys, the societal results of social research should improve as the level of frustration with unwanted surveys will probably decline. Both society and the research industry will benefit if spam surveys don’t exist.


If you’re annoying your customers with unwanted surveys, the time to stop is now. An unwanted survey is spam. As an industry, we need to take a hard stance on long, boring and unwanted spam surveys. The reputation of the research practice depends on it.

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4 responses to “Are You Alienating Your Customers With Spam Surveys?

  1. Ray, I will have to disagree with your “Spam Surveys” definition. We know by industry reports that 80% or more of all online surveys are conducted through panels where people opt-in to participate and receive survey invitations. Even the communities/panels that Vision Critical builds (and here at eCGlobal we build as well to our clients), use surveys as one of the main tools for interacting, engaging and collecting feedback from community members. When someone joins an online community, he/she is not necessarily opt-in to respond surveys, even though we use surveys as a way to collect their feedback. That is not SPAM.

    Google Consumer Surveys, Twitter Polls, Facebook questions are not creating SPAM surveys either. People can take the surveys if they wish, as they can click an online ad or click at a post in their social media feed. Surveys are becoming more “interact micro-contents” that can now be embedded in any digital experience. While the MR industry is discussing about the validity of surveys, the tech giants and tech startups are “eating” the space. See my recent article “Are Surveys really in decline?”

  2. Hi Adriana, I would argue that Google Consumer Surveys are absolutely spam surveys, they interrupt people trying to access content, many surveys to customer lists are unwelcome, Facebook questions based around buying intrusions are spam. I don’t have a problem with panels nor communities – but the people who make up online panels are becoming ever more atypical of the wider population – the panel companies are doing a fantastic job at trying to protect participants from terrible surveys – but agencies and end clients are driving that business to the wall in my opinion. The key determinant is response rates. If response rates are low, let’s say below 20 or 40%, then you are doing something to people that they don’t want, and that is bad news.

  3. I thought Google Consumer Surveys were opt-in only surveys? I downloaded the Google Opinion Rewards app out of curiosity about the surveys: never more than seven questions, and while I have often wondered how actionable the data is, I’ve seen the surveys as a huge step forward from the 25+ minute behemoths that make the rounds to panels. However, I’m not sure if those are the same as the GCS? Do I not see the GCS because Google already knows I’m in MR? I think with Twitter polls and the (seemingly to me) rarely-used FB polls are saturating an already saturated survey market, though drawing users because of their micro size. I’m on one survey panel that constantly sends invitations for long, non-mobile-friendly surveys: those I see as SPAM, even though I opted in to be a panelist. They’re not good surveys, and I find myself actively avoiding them. However, there’s equal responsibility from clients and suppliers for such surveys being administered, in my opinion.

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