“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Considering the impact of technology on every aspect of the research process, the business of customer insights can seem like an entirely different ball game than even 20 years ago. But certain guiding principles still apply including the fundamental role of respondent engagement. Finding and reaching the right people is only half the battle in primary research. Engaging them deeply enough and for long enough to capture quality feedback is what drives successful research outcomes and it’s never been more important or more challenging.
The “attention sweepstakes”
Researchers have always competed for respondents’ attention and the contest has only grown more intense and more complex over time.
What’s a land line?
Not so long ago, we could assume people participating in surveys were at their desk at home or at work—or still within living memory, answering their home phone—and subject to limited distractions. Even when qualitative research began to move online, respondents were initially tethered to stationary broadband connections at home or at work where they could (and usually did) control potential interruptions.
Nowadays, virtually everybody is completely mobile, using smartphones and tablets everywhere they go and engaging with the media they choose at the moment it suits them. There is no way to predict or control where or when a respondent participates in any kind of research. We need to capture and hold their attention against whatever else might be going on where they are, in that moment.
Everyone’s a digital native now
Not literally everyone, but close. As the population ages, the proportion of those exposed to technology at a young age naturally grows. And since pandemic lockdowns forced so many workplace and educational environments to migrate online there is an additional population of ‘naturalized’ digital citizens. That brief but far-reaching episode of turbo-charged migration changed everything and there will be no going back.
What does this mean for researchers? As more people come to occupy the digital world as their natural habitat, they develop higher expectations about the quality of the experiences they encounter online. And, as they access a broader range of resources and participate in more varied activities in the digital world, the competition for their sustained attention heats up even more.
Don’t forget to bring the doughnuts
Reams are being written about whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the fact is we are seeing the gamification of just about everything. Using game elements—points, badges, prizes, leaderboards—in non-game contexts has become ubiquitous as marketers, educators and others use it to create value-driven user experiences that keep people engaged. It’s important for researchers to understand because of how it has shaped people’s expectations about online experiences. The bottom line: if we want to keep respondents engaged, we must consider what’s in it for them. Participation incentives help get them to the first page and it’s up to the survey designer to keep them engaged to the end.
Best practices for research in a hyper-mobile world
OK, those are the challenges. Here are a few best practices that will help you win the respondent engagement sweepstakes.
Keep it short and sweet
Be as concise as possible. Respondents are a non-renewable resource, and any tedious research experience discourages them from participating in another.
Managing length of interview (LOI) has been a challenge since the first researcher picked up a clipboard and started ringing doorbells. The temptation to add one more “nice to know” question never goes away. But even the most interesting survey wears thin past the 15-minute mark and keeping it closer to 10-12 minutes can boost your completion rate quite a lot. Take every opportunity to use skipping and branching to ensure each respondent only gets questions that are relevant to them. If a very long list of response options or product features is unavoidable, consider splitting the sample and exposing each segment to part of the list.
Honesty is always the best policy
Always take a friendly and forthright tone, of course. In this age of heightened concern around data privacy and younger generations’ general skepticism about institutional motivations and agendas, it’s even more important to be transparent about survey objectives and how the data will be used (and how it won’t). State explicitly—but briefly—how the resulting insights will benefit customers and users.
I’ll see your gamification and raise you one storyfication
Gamifying a survey runs the risk of trivializing it for the respondent—you want them to take it seriously enough to give thoughtful, candid responses—and clutters up the dataset unnecessarily. A better strategy is storifying it by keeping it interesting and giving it a sense of progression.
A literal plot line isn’t necessary but think about pacing and sequencing, like how musicians arrange a record album or a recital program. There’s an art to combining elements in a way that flows in an interesting way, carrying the listener—in our case, the respondent—along to the end. Most surveys have several sections and while data needs determine some of the sequencing, e.g., asking unprompted recall questions before prompted ones, you can still apply some of the same “programming” principles to keep it entertaining and avoid tedium. Begin with a few easy questions before posing ones that require more thought and discernment. Mix up question types and be sure the respondent will see logic in the segues.
What’s a good story without illustrations? The upside of living in a digital world is the ease of deploying multimedia in any context including surveys. Resist the urge to get carried away, though. The goal is to enhance, not distract from, your main “story line.”
Our hyper-mobile world brings particular challenges to insights research, but none that cannot be met by combining new tools and methods with fundamental guiding principles.