Reversing the response rate decline

Response rates are one of the most significant issues facing the research community today.
At a recent presentation to the Canadian Association of Market Research Organizations, Diane Bowers of the Council of American Survey Research Organizations listed response rates as one of the top three issues that U.S. industry needs to address, the others being privacy and the 'technological frontier' (some elements of which also have an impact on response rates!).
Not only that, but at the last several gatherings of the Worldwide Readership Symposia, at least half a day has been devoted solely to the problem of declining response rates and how this trend can be reversed.

Response rates are one of the most significant issues facing the research community today.

At a recent presentation to the Canadian Association of Market Research Organizations, Diane Bowers of the Council of American Survey Research Organizations listed response rates as one of the top three issues that U.S. industry needs to address, the others being privacy and the ‘technological frontier’ (some elements of which also have an impact on response rates!).

Not only that, but at the last several gatherings of the Worldwide Readership Symposia, at least half a day has been devoted solely to the problem of declining response rates and how this trend can be reversed.

Skewed samples

Why are response rates so important when most clients do not even ask, or question, the response rates for particular surveys?

Firstly, there is the fact that the profile of those responding to a survey may be different than those who tend not to reply. If differences do exist, we could be making erroneous conclusions about the success of a particular product, service or advertising campaign.

For example, if only limited callbacks are made during a study, then younger people, professionals and executives will usually be under-represented, as these are people who are generally more mobile and have less free time.

This representative sample issue is of such great concern in media research that minimum response rate targets are usually set as a matter of contract. The required rates are so high that they’re only achievable through extraordinary efforts on the part of interviewers – and by paying the respondent at least a token amount for the time required to complete the survey.

Another major impact of declining response rates is financial. More calls are needed to complete the quota of interviews. As a direct result, the cost of conducting survey research starts to climb; and the more difficult the target audience is to reach (i.e. low incidence), the more the costs increase.

Why aren’t people responding?

A prime factor may be the sheer number of calls that Canadian households receive. As the amount of money directed to market research increases, it is inevitable that the number of surveys will also increase. When one considers that most market and survey research projects are concentrated in the major urban areas, it is no wonder that households in major cities feel constantly bombarded by unsolicited calls. The increase in direct marketing activities only serves to compound the problem.

And while there is no factual information of which I am aware, there is anecdotal evidence that surveys, particularly telephone surveys, are getting longer. Respondents who are told that an interview will last 10 to 12 minutes are asking after 15 or 18 minutes how much longer the survey will take.

While the Professional Marketing Research Society has a guideline that telephone surveys lasting more than 30 minutes should be considered overly long, as an industry, we tend to stretch that limit. Clients ask why they can’t just add one or two more questions, given that a person who fits the desired characteristics is already on the telephone – and the survey just keeps growing. Our company has certainly been guilty of pushing the length when it comes to such surveys.

New technologies are also helping respondents to screen unwanted calls. Caller I.D., call blocking and even simple answering machines allow the consumer to avoid calls asking them to take part in an interview.

Pay to play

What can we do as an industry to reverse the trend and improve response rates?

One approach is to recognize the value of time. When respondents take part in mail surveys or focus groups, they are almost always paid for their participation. In fact, these payments have increased over the past years, as respondents recognize that their time, views and opinions are valuable to the research agency. Sometimes the payments may just be token amounts, yet they still recognize the value of the respondents’ opinions.

In past mail surveys, we have wasted money to some extent by sending incentives out to people who don’t respond. However, other forms of incentives are being tested, such as personalized cheques (or e-money in the case of Internet surveys), so it is becoming feasible to pay only those people answering the questionnaire. As a result, the payments for those completing such surveys are beginning to increase.

A current mail survey conducted among doctors for Print Measurement Bureau includes a personalized cheque varying between $50 and $100, depending on the doctor’s specialty. The response rate to this unsolicited 16-page questionnaire is more than 50% – this from one of the most difficult-to-reach target audiences. The payment is recognition that time is a valuable resource.

For telephone surveys, we may need to consider paying the respondent prior to taking part. In some media studies in which we have been involved, after a respondent refuses to take part in a particular survey, the supervisor calls back and offers a payment. This is the only way in which the more stringent response rate criteria of media studies can be achieved. Surely there is nothing wrong in offering to pay people for their time.

It is interesting that, when the monetary payment is offered, the person often agrees to do the survey at that very moment without first waiting for the payment to be received. The payment can then be sent later.

Preventing deception

From industry research conducted in 1995 (to be repeated this year), we know that Canadians are more likely to answer research questions than respond to calls where a product is being sold or a donation solicited.

In the past, it has been difficult for the consumer to distinguish one type of call from another, since some direct marketing and fundraising campaigns began with questions that made them appear to be survey research. As a result, people began to refuse any unsolicited call.

With the passing of recent legislation, all unsolicited calls must state clearly at the beginning the purpose of the call. Hopefully, over time, this will help to restore the confidence of Canadians in market and survey research. Certainly, it was shown in the previous industry survey that Canadians did understand that such surveys provide some indirect value to them.

Handing over control

As a further step, we also need to take action as an industry to reduce the length of telephone questionnaires. Too often we abuse the privilege afforded us by the respondent. Perhaps the PMRS needs to consider upgrading its maximum length guideline to a rule.

There are also new technologies that allow respondents to have more control over interviews. For example, with surveys done through the Internet, the respondent controls when the interview is done. It is even possible for the respondent to start the interview during one session and complete it at another.

There are also systems that invite the respondent to call in to an 800 number at their convenience and answer a survey presented through a digital response system. The added advantage is that all respondents hear the questions from exactly the same voice.

As an industry, we need to keep the response rate issue at the top of our agenda. We need to continue to explore new ways and processes for making the interaction with the respondent as easy and convenient as possible. After all, we must take care of our respondents; they are a limited resource. One day we may turn around and find that they have been added to the list of endangered species.

Ivor Thompson (ivort@tlcl.com) is a director of Toronto’s Thompson Lightstone & Company, a division of St. Louis, Mo.-based Maritz Marketing Research. He is currently president of the Professional Marketing Research Society and serves on the board of the Canadian Survey

Research Council.