By Greg Heist, Chief Innovation Officer & Jill Heist, Methodologist
Organizations have relied on the steady flow of thoughtful, high-quality consumer opinions for decades. They’ve counted on these mostly anonymous groups of people to assess products, provide feedback on experiences, and share intimate details of their lives. This knowledge loop has shaped a flourishing multi-billion dollar industry, while supporting the livelihood for hundreds of thousands of professionals and their families.
But it’s all in jeopardy.
The steady drumbeat of warnings from journal articles, conference presentations, and blog posts (including this one in 2012 “MR Has a Global Warming Problem – here are 5 ways you can fight it”) has been reverberating for so long that we seem to have become tone deaf to it. Yet old habits die hard. Clients and agencies alike need to look in the mirror and realize, to paraphrase Oliver Perry, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
THE DATA DOESN’T LIE. AND IT DOESN’T LOOK GOOD, EITHER.
Behind these warnings lies the ever-decreasing pool of willing research participants. Looking at all modes of research, the industry has witnessed 85-95% drops in response rates over the past 15 to 20 years. Response rates are now in the single digits.1 And, even when we do catch someone’s attention, it is fleeting at best, as the average adult attention span is now only eight seconds. 2 It’s time to listen to the drumbeat and change.
As generally optimistic people, we believe that this challenge can be met head-on at both the micro and macro level. Similar to the way individuals and governments must work cooperatively to address climate change, winning back the attention and hearts of consumers will require action at the individual level, as well as at the institutional (client organizations, agencies, and panel providers) level.
In that spirit, we offer a series of recommendations to help confront our discipline’s existential crisis head on.
MICRO LEVEL: THE FOUR R’S
It’s been said before that in the workplace and in life, we are little more than the sum of our habits. At an individual level, forming new habits takes both repetition and discipline. The below tactics center around following four simple actions: reframe, reduce, reengage,and reimagine.
Today, we live in a data-driven society that needs to be leveraged at every available opportunity. Consideration and incorporation of data sources such as social, transactional, and enterprise data should allow us to reduce the volume of primary data collected through surveys and qualitative avenues. In other words, why overtax consumers by asking questions we can obtain by other means?
Once we have outlined the primary research objectives, we need to become more economical with our words—incorporating only questions that target objectives. This requires more thoughtful construction on our part, but ironically more design time. Yet, before we sharpen our ability to minimize instructions, scale labels, and question wording, we first must trust that participants will “get” our line of simplified questioning. In fact, we often confuse the true meaning with excessive language.
The legacy of primary research lies in a formal clinical tone born out of academia. Today, we can gain valid and reliable insights while moving away from formal language and implementing more humanistic approaches. This kind of engagement can be done through gamifying questions, conversational vernacular, inserting humor, and building connections through a variety of techniques. Imagery, audio/video and other stimuli should be employed whenever possible and plausible. Our experience has also shown us that consumer connections are strongest in ongoing member-based community interactions, where response rates hit 40% and higher.
Finally, and perhaps most excitingly, the current climate of so-called consumer “disengagement” allows us to reimagine the world of research. It forces us to create new ways of interacting with consumers. This often means leaving the sterile four walls of a focus group facility to experience in-the-moment consumer interactions. Or it may be collaborating with analytics teams to employ techniques that effectively use information from partial surveys. Perhaps it is through snack-sized surveys conducted over time to develop a more telling, start-to-end consumer story. Whether it’s through digital or physical means, interactive activities drive consumer engagement. The two truly go hand in hand.
MACRO LEVEL: A “TOKYO PROTOCOL” TO CREATE A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE FOR THE INSIGHTS INDUSTRY
Many parallels exist within addressing climate change and solving the insight industry’s consumer engagement dilemma. While it’s critical for individuals to take action, it’s also clear that without intergovernmental commitment to policy reform, change would come too little and too late to avoid environmental calamity. Likewise, without shared commitments to change the status quo by client organizations, insights agencies and panel providers, reversing the steady decline in research engagement will simply never happen.
While the CASRO Tech Conference in early June focused heavily on this dilemma, as a collective industry, we need to move toward unification and action. In this sense, the Tokyo Climate Protocol of 2005 provides a model that the industry would do well to follow. Broadly speaking, it secured intergovernmental acknowledgement of the dangers posed by carbon emissions and established commitments to reducing them over a specified period of time.
The challenge for our industry to confront the extinction of consumer feedback is not unlike the challenge for governments. It requires education, awareness and commitment—all based on a deep understanding that these changes are critical, not just nice to haves. And while there isn’t a United Nations for our industry, an industry-level coalition needs to heed this call-to-action and spearhead a recovery plan.
With such a plan in place, client organizations, agencies, sample providers and technology firms would assemble to collaboratively tackle the root causes of this consumer engagement extinction. Most importantly, though, this coalition would need to establish binding commitments around tactics, such as:
- Reducing the length of the average survey by 50% over the next 36 months
- Committing to question length not exceeding a prescribed character limit
- Targeting average survey completion times to be reduced by 10-20% within 24 months
- Establishing norms for modularizing surveys and associated data stitching techniques
With agreements of this kind in place, the coalition would also cooperatively work on developing solutions that transform the commitments into reality. In the end, the most profound benefit from these micro and macro changes will come from creating a broader, more reciprocal relationship between consumers and corporations. With this lifeline firmly re-established, the insights industry will find itself on a sustainable path into the future and corporations will make choices that truly reflect a deep connection with the humans they utterly depend upon for their future growth and prosperity.
1 PEW RESEARCH CENTER 2012 Methodology Study. Rates computed according to American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) standard definitions for CON2, COOP3, and RR3. Rates are typical for surveys conducted in each year.
1 Online Research response rates based on Gongos’ Emilio Ditrapani’s experience and observations with panel research since 2002.
2 Attention Spans, Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada, Spring 2015