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A New Model for Respondent Engagement

We talk a lot about declining response rates and the crisis of sample quality in market research; it’s one of those perennial issues that comes up year after year without much real action being taken to fundamentally address the issue.


We talk a lot about declining response rates and the crisis of sample quality in market research; it’s one of those perennial issues that comes up year after year without much real action being taken to fundamentally address the issue. Sure, we put band-aids on it with pushing for shorter surveys, making surveys more visually appealing, trying new panel management approaches, de-duping and quality monitoring applications, accessing new sample via routers, social networks, etc… but those only address some of the symptoms of the disease. It’s focusing on a burning bush while ignoring the forest fire all around us!

I believe the real issue is our relationship with those that we rely on to share their opinions and experiences with us. We call them “respondents” and “subjects” in an attempt to adhere to some academic model of detachment that has largely lost it’s relevance in the new engagement paradigm fostered by social media. They have moved on and expect something different, but we hold on to outdated tropes that are only aiding in hastening the further marginalization of our profession. Things have to change, or else.

Now let me be clear: in no way am I advocating not basing much of quantitative research on the principles of sampling theory and probability that is the foundation of research when that is called for; what I am talking about is the purely practical issue of how we can get people to participate in the active research process. When we need to ask a question, what type of relationship do we need to develop with people so that they will answer it? That is a bedrock challenge for market research today.

This issue was a major aspect of the mobile research debate last week between myself, Ray Poynter, Reg Baker, and Michael Alioto. Although we all agreed that declining response rates were a critical issue, each had their own take on how to address it. Reg approached the issue from the traditional research perspective of detached, random sampling and he was absolutely correct that this model is largely untenable today. His take was that consumers would rebel against attempts to side step “asking” with “listening” via social media and privacy concerns would limit their willingness to allow researchers to fully exploit the potential of mobile research, so neither would be panaceas to the response rate issue.

On the other hand, both Ray and myself rebutted that privacy is largely a tempest in a teapot among legislators and that consumers are more than willing to give extensive access to their digital lives if they are getting something they find valuable in exchange. I am an adherent of the school of thought that new approaches that incorporate elements of gamification, social networking, and mobile apps are the way to address the issue of respondent engagement in research; after all, 700M people on Facebook can’t be wrong, can they?

Thank goodness that some folks also see this clearly and are rapidly building new models that move us forward rather than holding us back.  A few examples that come to mind are:

  • MROCs – online communities built on shared interests around a topic or brand. (ex: Communispace or Vision Critical)
  • Crowdsourcing – utilizing communities or social networks to harness the “wisdom of crowds” for ideation, co-creation, or problem solving. (ex: KL Communications, InsightPool)
  • Mobile apps – a new variation of the panel model using a variety of engagement tactics such as point redemption, rewards, interest profiling, etc… While not revolutionary, the “in the moment” aspect of these studies can be compelling to particpants (ex: Thumbspeak, iPinion, most every current panel provider)
  • Social Media – From Facebook Pages to Linkedin Groups and from analyzing Twitter streams to social media monitoring many firms are developing models to harness the social web for insight generation. (ex: too many to mention!)
  • Hybrids – firms that are combining elements of all of the above to create new models for engaging consumers. (ex: Pollbob, Gongos, txteagle, Toluna, Civic Science)
Firms like these are all changing the way we engage with consumers, and are doing it well. That said, innovation is a dynamic force and new approaches are continuously emerging to challenge the status quo.  Driven by these models new providers are also entering the market that are building on the foundation these pioneering companies have laid down. One such new player that recently caught my eye is pureprofile, and they have one of the most interesting challenges to the traditional “panel” model that I’ve seen yet, and it goes far towards redefining what engagement means.
The company turns the existing relationship dynamic on it’s head by empowering their “account holders” with the idea that every person’s profile has inherent value and worth; it is an asset that they can monetize via pureprofile. Rather than engaging in the incidence lottery of most panels, pureprofile takes a “big data” approach and continuously builds upon an immense data set of profiles of their account holders, enabling pinpoint targeting on most any topic imaginable and allowing the account holder to leverage this information in a fair value trade with businesses. It’s a whole new aspect of the “Quantified Self Movement” brought to the masses. Here is a bit of their story from their website:

Pureprofile was founded in 2000 by Paul Chan with the assistance of Fred Swaab. By the time the company launched in 2002, Paul had pioneered the notion that each and every person’s profile is a valuable asset.

Personal profiles are already the main way for individuals to express themselves online but pureprofile was founded on the principle that a person’s profile should drive more than their engagement with their social network. The profile should power the exchange of targeted attention between businesses and consumers.

The profile allows businesses to know what people talk about, what they spend their time and money on and what interests them. This is, after all, how businesses make their own strategic decisions. Every person should benefit from this, realizing the value of their own information. With more than 850 individual questions in our profile, respondents can be segmented according to a multitude of demographic and consumer information.

Personal profiles will become the most powerful tool for businesses to reach the right people, get the right answers and ensure unrivalled participation rates. Every answer will be saved, becoming another way to segment, target and learn about our Account Holders. will be the site to bring you this.

The goal is for every Account Holder is to take control of their own profile, consenting to the use of their attention and ultimately gaining value for themselves. We’re about creating advantages for consumers and bringing insights which make decisions easier, faster and smarter.

We are now a global company with offices in Sydney, London and Mumbai, more than 550,000 Account Holders and 500 clients.

I suppose it’s a misnomer to say pureprofile is a new entrant to the market; they have been around for a decade, although flying under the U.S. MR industry radar until this year. After becoming one of the largest and most respected providers in Australia they’ve set their sites on Europe and North America and are making a significant push to change the game in the largest research markets in the world.

On the surface it’s easy to dismiss pureprofile as the the ultimate commoditization of consumer access, but after digging in a bit what I found was profoundly different and really pretty exciting. Here is what jumps out at me based on what I’ve learned about them:

  • They don’t play the email invite game. They are a consumer portal: a daily destination for their members. Account holders check in at the site and see what opportunities are available to them. This approach has given them an unprecedented response rate of over 80%. That’s right; their members agree to participate in research over 80% of the time.
  • They embrace the new. They are integrated with most major social networks via API, are mobile compatible with all of the major operating systems, and view convergence as mission critical.
  • It’s all about the consumer. For pureprofile, the consumer is their primary customer and they go to great lengths to deliver a superlative experience. Their incentive system is cash-based and they pay their account holders for every single interaction.
  • It’s a financial win/win. Their incentives are the highest in the industry, yet their overall pricing is highly competitive.
  • Innovation is a core value. Almost 70% of their staff is dedicated to research & development. They seem driven to constantly move forward and their vision is far beyond being a simple research supplier.
  • Big Data is king. Because of their ongoing tracking of all participation they can target on more than 3,200 questions.

That last point is the most impressive of all. What they have effectively created is a consumer driven, permission based platform for “big data” analysis. I suspect that as they proceed with a deeper level of social media integration and eventually launch their own mobile app pureprofile may well have the makings of the first on demand research platform that combines surveys, social media, geolocation, and behavioral data in a single application. Yes, other firms are working on building similar models of converged data, but they are not doing that in collaboration with consumers. That is the big deal about pureprofile and why I think they may have the best chance of redefining respondent engagement. Rather than being commodities, each consumer is now akin to a sought after brand and is fully and transparently in control of the relationship with those who want to talk to them. It seems like such a simple idea when you hear it, yet it is diametrically opposite  of the way research tends to relate to respondents.

Ultimately I think the response rate conundrum will be solved via some combination of  everything we’ve covered here. Zynga has shown us that if you make it fun, make it social, and provide rewards for participation that you can get people to engage in a variety of activities for extended periods of time. Combine those values with putting consumers in control of the relationship and I think the issue of respondent engagement will simply disappear. Let’s try it and see what happens, shall we? We don’t have much to lose, but we have an immense potential to gain if we do it right!

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