Is Your Market-Research Survey Really A Negative Ad Campaign?

Let’s face it. If you respond to a survey these days, that makes you an anomaly.

Thanks to excessive commercial survey solicitations — interceptive, disruptive, too long and delivering little in return — consumers frequently avoid them with as much determination as they do advertising. It’s a state of affairs that marketers don’t like to talk about, but is a growing concern in this age of consumer empowerment and attention scarcity.

But some surveys present challenges that are potentially worse than simple reluctance among respondents to cooperate. When surveys intrude, confuse or offend, they can lead to brand erosion, and even brand backlash.

Sure, surveys have an extremely important role in market intelligence, and they’ll be around forever. In fact, they’re becoming ubiquitous as the Internet and low-cost management tools democratize and commoditize them. But combined with marketers’ desire to measure more and more, the survey’s rising status on the irritation scale means it has become a double-edged sword. Legitimate survey companies, including the brands that rely on survey data, must understand these nuances to navigate an increasingly complex environment. Etiquette now is more important than anything else.

At the Net Promoter Conference earlier this week, loyalty-measurement guru Fred Reichheld wisely underscored how surveys, when abused or improperly executed, can quickly become a negative ad campaign for a product or corporate brand. Imagine that: a direct-to-consumer campaign with not positive, but negative-sentiment GRPs! Every survey has a cost associated with it, far more than the survey itself. The total cost is tied more to the resulting impression left with the respondent. And if the potential respondent is particularly valuable, any cost can quickly turn into a major opportunity loss.

What can companies do to avoid the downside of survey campaigns and optimize the upside?

First, all marketing professionals must understand that the rules of engagement that apply to advertising and marketing campaigns also apply to survey campaigns. Commercial interaction is commercial interaction; surveys are an advertising event. That means respecting that the community and potential respondents come first. In the spirit of Reichheld, that is the key to brand advocacy.

Next, respect that people’s time and attention are scarce. Presuming a respondent cooperates, don’t ask too many questions, and make sure you ask all the right questions! The auto industry is among the biggest violators here (and would benefit by reading Reichheld’s book, The Ultimate Question).

Then companies must be open to any feedback, especially with surveys among existing customers. It is amazing how often mega-brands today conduct customer surveys about product and service experience, but fail to arm their data-collection professionals with guidance or a method to accept open-ended feedback. This often happens when a passionate respondent feels questions don’t accurately reflect the experience.

For example, a survey division of a big telecommunications company I did business with hung up on me recently when I insisted that the “how satisfied are you” multiple-choice question failed to reflect the issue, and therefore missed an opportunity to correct the real problem I had! If feedback among loyal customers is a gift, this company not only threw a major opportunity out the window, but tarnished its brand in the process. This survey was worse than a negative ad campaign, and the experience is not uncommon! The paradox is that formal survey feedback mechanisms often underscore just how closed companies are to feedback.

Similarly, surveys must show empathy. If the social-media realm has validated anything, it’s that respondents have an emotional need to express and self-validate their beliefs. Surveys, in the eyes of respondents, should be more about listening versus soliciting answers.

Brands can avoid survey backlash by avoiding intrusive, unacceptable recruitment techniques. I’m amazed at how many unsolicited requests from random survey companies make it through my spam filter each day. These unwelcome solicitations usually come from fly-by-night survey and panel companies, but they’re being financially supported by someone” and if not by brands, I don’t know by whom! And these spammers are often the same guys engaging in popup advertising (surprisingly, even today, in 2007). If you’re a brand, it’s a wise idea to disassociate from these sorts of outfits, the same way you’d avoid ethically questionable marketing agencies.

Finally, surveys must also provide more meaningful value in return. Recruitment incentives are important, but I’m talking about follow-up. If people dedicate and invest valuable time providing actionable intelligence, surveyors should feel obligated to follow through and share how respondent participation resulted in insights and action. The more valuable the respondent, the more important this is. This is what will entice respondents to participate in the future.

Now here’s a survey: What’s your opinion on the surveys you encounter in everyday life?

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

Leave a comment