How long, unwanted surveys hurt the market research industry

How long, unwanted surveys hurt the market research industry

The proliferation of unwanted surveys is an urgent issue for the market research industry. Over the years, unwanted surveys (including unsolicited telephone calls, emails and popups) have damaged the relationship brands have with their customers. They have also significantly damaged the relationship market research has with potential participants.

Concern about surveys is not new, but it’s an issue that’s more critical than ever. Back in 2013, the Australian Government issued a warning to its online citizens to be wary of survey-related spam. This sort of warning heightens the public’s alienation from the survey process, damaging the overall reputation of market research.

In the ebook No Spam Surveys, Vision Critical CEO Scott Miller, makes a case for why traditional surveys are no longer sufficient in today’s business world. “The era of traditional surveys is over,” he writes in the ebook, arguing that companies should consider new tactics to engage and better understand the empowered customer.

What is a spam survey?

A spam survey—just like spam in general—is an unsolicited survey that’s irrelevant to the recipient.

The main features of a spam survey are:

  • They are sent to people who haven’t opted-in and who didn’t anticipate receiving them.
  • People are receiving too many survey requests, from too many different sources.
  • This can be because they are too long, but it can also be because they are written in a way that is unengaging.
  • They’re often too general purpose; people find the questions irrelevant to them and their lives.

The consequences of spam surveys

Customers have become so annoyed and alienated by spam surveys that many people have withdrawn some or all of their cooperation with companies. Stats show that customer surveys now collect the views of a tiny minority of the population—creating doubts about the validity of the responses.

Response rate for ad hoc surveys

Writing in ESOMAR’s Research World (November 2015), Kathleen Frankovic highlighted that in the U.S. in 1997 “a rigorous effort by public poll” could achieve a 60 percent response rate and regular polls could reach 36 percent. Today, even the best studies only achieve 9 percent—and most achieve much less than that.

“Customers have become so annoyed and alienated by spam surveys that many people have withdrawn some or all of their cooperation with companies.”

The second consequence of the rise of spam surveys is that the responses provided to long and boring surveys are plagued with problems of people satisficing (i.e. finding quick and easy ways to complete the survey, rather than answering the questions properly). Researchers and clients often approach this as a problem of bad respondents, but it is mostly a problem of bad surveys. We do not need to change the people—we need to change the survey process!

The research industry has been fighting the wrong battles

Over the last 15 years, governments around the world have been passing “do not call” legislation, followed by restrictions on unsolicited emails and messages. In each case, the research industry has lobbied to have its activities excepted from the legislation. Due to the success of these lobbying activities, the research industry has carried on using spam surveys, increasing the public’s alienation from the research process.

This process is still continuing. In the U.S., the FCC is currently proposing to tighten the rules to ban uninvited calls to mobile phones. Not surprisingly, researchers are lobbying for the ability to continue contacting respondents and for FCC to clarify the limits of the proposed new regulation. Some people in the industry have been calling for a different approach. For example, writing in AdvertisingAge, Vision Critical Founder Andrew Reid argues that FCC’s autodialer ban will lead to innovation in marketing and market research.

The market research industry needs to have a long-term view. The status quo when it comes to spam surveys will secure a short-term commercial advantage, but it will continue to erode the long-term relationship between the public and research.

Alternatives to spam surveys

As I discussed in my May 2015 post, there are a growing number of alternatives to spam surveys such as insight communities, in-the-moment research and observational research. (READ: Why the Long Survey is Dead)

In his ebook, Scott Miller recommends a four-pronged approach to replacing the out-dated spam survey model. Overall, these steps will help companies avoid sending spam surveys and become a more customer-centric enterprise. He recommends:

  1. Treating customers like people. Instead of boring them, empower your customers with feedback as well as questions. Prove to them that you’re listening.
  2. Engaging with customers over time. Creating a dialogue with customers, rather than conducting ad-hoc projects, shows customers you’re interested in them as people. Ongoing engagement removes the need to keep asking the same questions (e.g. profiling questions).
  3. Drawing on insight within your company. Treat every interaction with a customer as both a chance to delight the customer and a chance to increase your knowledge about what customers want and think. In many cases, the answer to a business question will already exist within the insight you already have. Do not resort to a survey as your first option—at best, yet another survey should be the last option.
  4. Breaking down internal silos. To fully utilize the existing insight within your company, you need to ensure that information flows freely around the enterprise. In order to engage with customers over time, you need to know what the organization is planning. Ensure that every part of the company is committed to listening to and engaging with customers.

“Instead of boring them, empower your customers with feedback as well as questions.”

Should all uninvited surveys be banned?

Within market research, there are some occasions where a suitably worded invitation might be applicable. If you’ve put together a conference, for instance, a one-off survey with attendees might be appropriate. However, it’s still necessary to check whether the audience is going to see the invitation as intrusive or unwanted. Ask yourself: will they find the survey boring or irrelevant? If the answer is yes, you might want to rethink your approach.

There’s also a very different case to be made for social research. Many projects exist where the public good depends on contacting a representative sample—for example, studies where the government needs to understand the unemployment figures in order to be able target expenditure and assistance. In these cases, society needs to trade-off the disutility of unwanted surveys against the public good the information can provide.

If market researchers stop using spam surveys, the societal results of social research should improve as the level of frustration with unwanted surveys will probably decline. Both society and the research industry will benefit if spam surveys don’t exist.

Tweet this!If you’re annoying your customers with unwanted surveys, the time to stop is now. – @RayPoynter #NoSpamSurveys #MRX (TWEET THIS INSIGHT


If you’re annoying your customers with unwanted surveys, the time to stop is now. An unwanted survey is spam. As an industry, we need to take a hard stance on long, boring and unwanted spam surveys. The reputation of the research practice depends on it.

A version of this article first appeared on the GreenBook blog.

No Spam Surveys - an ebook from Vision Critical

  • Chris Robinson

    What a self fulfilling article. The fact is most survey work outside of panels and insight communities would be defined as “spam”? Here is the first line of your own definition.
    “They are sent to people who haven’t opted-in and who didn’t anticipate receiving them”.
    Many surveys would tick this box. Surely the whole basis of our industry is getting peole to provide feedback. Not all of that will come without some attaempt to engage the potential respondents

    This is the crux of the argument. the segue into length of survey and survey style is a justification for mobile panels which VisonCritical has some expertize in. Just because a panelist has opted in for surveys doesn’t make any attempt at surveying a panelist not annoying.

    Sirely the biggest issue, which I have been arguing for years, is that panel respondents of any type – mobile or otherwise – are simply biased.

    • RayPoynter

      Hi Chris, the key issue is that we have objective evidence that these ‘spam surveys’ are unwanted, a) response rates are dropping to levels that render random probability irrelevant, b) people are using devices and laws to protect themselves from surveys (e.g. do not call lists, spam blockers, disclosing call numbers, crossing the street), c) people posting comments (in the media, social media, and in response to survey requests) asking for fewer interruptions.

      Are panels biased, yes. Is every other form of market research biased yes. The question is how the bias is evaluated and handled. And, when I talk of bias we need to include the nature of the questions asked and the nature of the process every bit as much as the bias created by who is participating in the research. I’ll be writing more on this shortly.

      • Chris Robinson

        All good points Ray. There is no doubt that the incidence of unsolicited interviewing effectiveness is going down. But the onus on the industry side is to ensure that quality in the alternative, panel communities, is proven. The ease of building panels is a temptation for many suppliers to enter this industry without the rigour of validation or reliability.
        Having seen studies move from the offline to the online I was constantly reminded of the poor response quality online and the clearly unthinking response patterns of these so called “insight” communities. The litmus test is in open ended responses. Anyone who has been on this journey will see open ended brand-recall fall from figures as high as 7-8 brands in banking studies to 2-3. Something wrong there I would suggest. And do I even need to go into the poor participation rates and straight lining that generally define panel responses.
        In pure methodological terms I would suggest the industry should be all over these issues and not assume because you can solve the access issue that quality research necessarily follows. In my view and in my experience there is a lot that stinks in this sector of the industry, but unfortunately the innovation press is insistent on finding breakthroughs, as questionable as they may in reality be.

Subscribe to the Vision Critical blog

Get free customer intelligence tips and resources delivered weekly to your inbox.

By completing this form you consent to receive emails from Vision Critical. You can unsubscribe at any time. Learn more in our privacy policy.