Tag Archives: online survey

Too Many Surveys? We’d Love your Opinion

I just finished a lengthy (20 min.) survey regarding a recent vacation, only to have my input erased due to technical issues. Getting a lot of this lately.

Restroom Survy

Not elbow-friendly buttons

Marketers have become entranced by the ability to survey consumers at very low cost. This is a seeming game-changing alternative to custom studies that can easily get into 4 or 5 figures or more. Technology has made it possible to survey via email, phone and even in restrooms!

What’s not to like?

Well, as a consumer, I’ll tell you what’s not to like. We are getting surveyed to death.  Ironically, more surveys might be leading to lower quality insights.

Survey montage

If, like The Armchair MBA, you use your inbox as a de facto filing tool, search for ‘survey’ or ‘what do you think’ or ‘your opinion’ and see what you get.

The answer is: lots. In addition to follow-up questions on every Amazon purchase, flight segment, taxi, Uber or car rental you take, everyone is getting into the act.

The dangers of over-surveying are:

  • Response rate/burnout.  The more surveys people receive, the fewer they’re likely to fill out. This reduces the number of qualified respondents.
  • Bias. Just as you don’t want to use the plumber who’s always available, you don’t want to hear just from respondents who always have time to fill out online surveys.
  • Response quality. More surveys = less time per survey. Responses that are rushed are more likely to be cursory and of low quality, particularly late in a survey.
  • Annoyance. A company that always has its hand out for info is going to wear out its welcome, or minimally get diminishing response.

All of these things can result in worse, rather than better, information.

So here are a few things you can do to maximize the usefulness of your surveys.

  1. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.   In short, don’t survey if you don’t need to. Make the surveys you do conduct meaningful. Maximize use of info you already have. If you’re tracking attitudes over time, make sure you’re asking in a way where the trends are valid. Again, avoid unnecessary surveying just for the sake of surveying. This makes the surveys you send stand out more.
  2. Keep it short. No one has time for lengthy, repetitive surveys. Promise brevity in your subject line or where it will show as a thinly disguised plea in the preview pane.
  3. Offer something in return. This can be free goods, discounts, a chance to win a prize, whatever. Again, get this across in the subject line or preview area or it doesn’t matter.   Brevity + bribery is a good combination.Survey-brevity

Survey-Incentive4.  Promise to share results of the survey. This is the researcher’s click-bait, especially if it’s something of high interest.  Related, give the respondent some level of belief that the results will actually result in something good being done.

5.  Flatter the potential respondent. ‘We’d like your expert opinion’, etc. As long as Pride is still one of the Seven Deadly Sins, this will have some effect.


And finally, tip #6 – – don’t put a push-button survey machine in a restroom.

Survey 1

US Census goes to NSA Fantasy Camp

This is a story of abuse of a bully pulpit in the online survey arena – – by none other than the US Government.

First, some context:  Recently I opted to answer one of those familiar online surveys, because a) being involved in the survey business I was curious and b) they asked nicely.  I would have also opted for c) a reward, but no one was offering.

However, after about the tenth or eleventh screen of increasingly inane questions (“how many times, on average per month, did you take a left turn in your primary vehicle over the last 6 months?”), I punched out and the surveyer was left with bupkis – nothing.  If they’d kept it to about 5 minutes I would have been fine with it.

In surveying, as they say, just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD.  This applies equally to network TV, use of cellphones and enhancement surgery.  There is a diminishing marginal return at work.  But I digress.


The big kahuna of survey abuse came in the mail a few weeks ago – – the American Community Survey, cheerfully served up by your US Census Bureau.   This is a MANDATORY* survey that is constantly updated, and according to the website (accessible by clicking the graphic above), “generates data that help determine how more than $450 billion in federal and state funds are distributed each year.”  This includes typical data such as demographics, but then goes WAY beyond that.

*up to $5000 fine for noncompliance – – yee-hah!

ACS - Census - Screenshot

For the record, I have in the past been a big user of US Census data, and I’m a believer in its value for many purposes.

The reason this one is so objectionable is not only the intrusive information it asks, and not only the burden of time required to complete it, but also the $5000 hammer that awaits you if you refuse.  (There are apparently more extreme enforcement tactics, such as agents scoping out your house, but we shall stick to the meat of the matter).  It struck me as so out there that I actually considered contacting the ACLU to see if they can really do this.  The feeling subsided.

What The Survey Asks – –  check it out for yourself here.
– the survey starts out innocently enough – – ages, kids, ethnicity, etc
– then it dives into 2 sections that would make the NSA (or at least the IRS) blush:
1) HOUSING – – not just the expected house age, size, # of rooms – – this survey asks things like:
– exact types of computers, which of 6 types of internet service, monthly fuel expense, annual fuel expense, condo fees, monthly mortgage cost, real estate taxes, estimated resale value and other stuff including this gem:  “How much is the regular monthly payment on all second or junior mortgages and all home equity loans on THIS property?
2) PERSONAL INFO – – commuting time, what time the person leaves home for work and how long they are gone (hmmm…)
– also questions about income that made me swear I was doing a second tax return:  ‘Wages, salary, commissions, bonuses, or tips from all jobs. Report amount before deductions for taxes, bonds, dues, or other items.  “Interest, dividends, net rental income, royalty income, or income from estates and trusts. Report even small amounts credited to an account.  Etc. [Editors note:  dont forget the small amounts when dealing with the IRS.]   

It goes on.  The point of this rant is that the good people at Census have the ability to use the power of the US Government to make sure we have usable planning data.  Fair enough.  But they didn’t know when to stop.  This is an imposition of hours, not minutes, and the absolute need for some of this data is questionable at best (suppose it is known what computers are at home and when you’re not…).  And we are being asked much of the same info from another government agency.

The ultimate irony is that the NSA has probably figured out how to get this info without us even knowing it anyway (only partially kidding).  So why impose this pain for arguably marginally useful information?  Because they can, I suppose.

Perhaps, like ACA, the designers of this survey would have been well advised to try it out themselves before subjecting all of us civilians to it.

Final thought:  Get off my lawn.  OK, rant over.