What were they thinking?

I recently received a postcard from IPSOS to go online and complete a survey for BP.  The instructions were on the back of the postcard.  Click here to see it.

I could nitpick on this and point out that unless you know the BP logo you might not understand that this is a survey about where you buy your gas, but we'll let that go.  The real problem is getting to the survey.  First, they give you a tough URL to type into your browser.  Most people are familiar with URLs that start with "www" rather than the more mysterious "http://" so that is tough enough.  Second, they' give you a URL with a somewhat unconventional domain name with the "-" character in it.  So just typing the URL correctly took me a couple of tries.

But the real puzzle unfolds when you get to the site and have to enter your ID and Password.  The postcard says that this information is included on the front.  You can see the front here. Somewhere on there is an ID and a Password, but it sure was not obvious to me where.  After several tries of different combinations I discovered that my ID is 91646492 and my Password is SURVEY.   

You have to wonder about the cumulative effect of all of this on survey participation.  I stuck with it because I'm a survey geek.  But who else will?

Example of a Good Survey Solicitation

Lately I've been paying more attention to the survey requests that I get.  Here is one that came in mail.  It's a bit long but has all of the key elements of a good survey request.  Click on to seSnap1_2e it full screen. 

  Of course, I might modify it a bit.  I would not lead with all of that talk about health care costs because some people might stop reading expecting that it's a fund raising letter.  So I would put the survey stuff from the second paragraph up in the first paragraph, right after the first sentence.  But I still think this is a good strong letter and there is much here to emulated.

Gaining Cooperation

The toughest part of a telephone interviewer's job is getting the respondent to agree to do the survey.  As we have moved into survey modes like Web and mail where there is no interviewer that job of getting respondents to do our survey falls to the solicitation letter or email.  So writing strong and convincing solicitations is one of the most important new things we need to learn as we do an increasing number of these self-administered surveys.

The survey methods literature is replete with hypotheses and theories about why people choose to cooperate with or refuse survey requests.  Monetary incentives have certainly gotten lots and lots of attention and based on my quick, unscientific sampling of some of our respondent solicitation messages I'd say that we (MSI) have come to view it as not just the primary reason respondents cooperate but the only reason they cooperate.  So we send out lots of letters and emails that more or less say: "We are conducting a survey and we will pay you $$ to do it.  Here's how."

The survey methodologists will argue that the decision about whether to cooperate is much more complicated than a simple economic transaction.  People have questions like:

  • Who are these people?  Are they reputable or is this a scam?
  • Why was I selected?  Where did they get my name?
  • What's the survey about and why is it worth doing?
  • What are they going to do with the results?
  • By when do I need to do the survey?
  • What's in it for me besides the money?

This led me to mail survey maestro Don Dillman's Mail and Internet Surveys.  His advice is to include the following to encourage participation:

  • Be clear about the survey topic and make it seem as interesting as possible
  • Describe the goals of the study and what will be done with the results
  • Credential MSI and, if not a blind study, the sponsoring client
  • Give assurances of confidentiality
  • Be clear about the closing date of the survey
  • Specify the incentive, how, and when it will be delivered

And then I got an email invitation from Harris Interactive to do a customer sat survey for Microsoft.  I was impressed.  All of the Dillman elements were there including a link to a Web site where they explained their relationship to Microsoft and their privacy policy.

If we adopt this approach will our response rates skyrocket?  No.  But we might be able to generate enough improvement to lower our costs some, increase our response rates, and get to quotas more quickly than we do now.  The only way to know is to begin to do some well designed experiments in which respondents are randomly assigned to different letters and the response rates by letter are monitored.  I'd suggest just doing two cells per survey rather than trying to vary a whole lot of things at once but to hone an approach over multiple surveys.  It's inexpensive research that just might have some significant payoff, and clients will like what they see.