Best PracticesCustomer SurveysMarket Research

Low Response Rates? The Answer Lurks in The Shadows

Every market research study has two objectives.

That’s right. Two.

There’s the stated research objective. Perhaps something likes, “Determine current levels of brand awareness in 5 key market areas,” or “Test 6 potential new marketing messages for alignment with emerging customer needs.”

Then there’s the other, assumed objective: getting engaged respondent participation. This is an implicit objective that too often gets minimized. Yes, we all know we have to do everything we can to maximize response rates, but the choice of methodology is too often driven by the research objective—not the respondents’ needs.

As researchers, we talk a lot about matching the methodology to the first objective. But given low response rates and the preciousness of qualified respondents, we need to focus a lot more on matching the methodology to the audience.

An Example

A researcher I know from a software company was upset after working with a market research agency on a huge study of IT executives. They collected over a thousand responses to an online survey, but data collection was brutally slow due to low response rates. When she finally got the data, she had a lot of important items to which there were a surprising percent of neutral or even “don’t know” responses. Putting aside that this issue should have been caught during the pre-test phase of the project, this was hugely disappointing.

I looked over the screening criteria myself, just to see what the scoop was, and it was obvious that the audience they were targeting was too senior for the 25-minute, very technical, online survey. The topic was about a fairly new technology, so chances are they were interested in the topic—but the methodology choice and level of detail was wrong.

The Shadow Objective

It’s always there. The need to match the project’s methodology with the target respondents’ preferences and behaviors. Maybe you want quantitative data, but the target group gets too many similar requests as is. Maybe you want to do focus groups, but your target population works in a field where scheduling is too uncertain for them to commit to 2 hours of time. Maybe you want to do a phone survey, but your audience has a low penetration of landlines.

Bottom line

Choosing the best methodology for any research study requires considering the project’s objective and the shadow objective. The good news? These days there are so many methods and tools that can make the research experience engaging, there is no need to be constricted by the choice of survey versus focus group.

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Kathryn Korostoff

Kathryn Korostoff is founder and lead instructor at Research Rockstar. Over the past 25 years, she has personally directed more than 600 primary market research projects and published over 100 bylined articles in magazines. She is also a professor at Boston University, where she teaches grad students how to analyze and report quantitative data.

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4 thoughts on “Low Response Rates? The Answer Lurks in The Shadows”

  1. Your post highlights another issue that I’ve seen frequently, which is a mismatch of objective to target audience.

    A critical aspect of research/survey design is to ask questions that the respondent can/will answer. A big part of getting this right is talking to the people with the answers to your questions. This goes a long way to improving data quality and engagement – after all, who is going to want to spend much time answering questions that aren’t really relevant to them?

    From the way you described the example, it sounds like a big part of the problem was asking questions of senior execs instead of the mid-level, technical people who could better provide the answers.

    In many years of conducting B2B research, I’ve noticed a tendency among marketers to think that decisions about their product or service are made at the highest levels, when most of the time this just isn’t the case. To be sure, the C-suite is the decision-maker in some cases, but for the large majority of products and services sold to businesses, the real purchase decisions are made much lower on the ladder. It’s up to the research consultant to address issues like this upfront, while the research is being designed, to avoid an outcome as you described.

  2. Thanks Ed–I’ve also had a lot of tech clients try to target folks who were just too senior for their product category. Usually they listen to reason, though I have seen some folks need to learn the hard way….

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