Online survey engagement is an oxymoron

My MRII colleague, Bill MacElroy, has put up a number of blog posts here over the last couple of months that explore recent thinking within MR about respondent engagement. It comes on the heels of the GRIT CPR REPORT (no, not that kind of CPR, although the metaphor may be apt) which is mostly a rinse and repeat of what we have been hearing within the MRX echo chamber for about the last 10 years.

It all reminded me of something that I wrote almost 20 years ago in a chapter of a book with the now odd-sounding title, Computer Assisted Survey Information Collection.  I was asked to write the last chapter on the future of surveys which even then was clouded by a vision of the future best summed up in Nicholas Negraponte’s compelling little book, being digital.  In my conclusion I wrote, “How will we reconcile the use of an overwhelmingly powerful and omnipresent (some might say invasive) information technology with the standards of a discipline whose main goal is to increase our understanding of human behavior?”  I suggested two equally disappointing alternatives: “the bloodless exercise of the most advanced cyber techniques or a quaint anachronism, a cottage industry from another age?” I hoped for something more, but I think it’s pretty clear where we are headed. As a self-anointed survey geek, I am more than a little disappointed.

So what’s gone wrong? I think it’s pretty simple. It’s the loss of anything approaching humanity in surveys.

I learned about surveys from Paul Sheatsley, one of the true pioneers of the survey profession, at NORC where we worked together in the late 80s and enjoyed a White Sox game or two together.  Paul used to say that the reason response rates and data quality were so much better for face-to-face than for telephone was because people appreciated the fact that the interviewer had taken the time to come to their homes and sit down to talk. We were doing hour long plus interviews in those days and it worked because at a basic level it was two human beings having a conversation about a topic of mutual interest. Paul had little use for mail surveys because the underlying message was, “This is not important enough for me to take the time to actually talk to you.” And, they required that people fill in forms, and people don’t especially enjoy filling in forms.

We talk a lot these days about surveys needing to be more “engaging.” But engaging is a human trait, appropriated by technologists to mean using technology to get people to do something that is unnatural to them. We increasingly treat respondents like rats in a Skinner box with games and rewards and exercises and shiny objects that mostly seem pointless to them. Doing a survey these days is interacting with an invisible, bloodless, and not very bright robot, unseen behind a screen and putting up questions about things that most people don’t care about. Survey participation has shrunk to a smaller and smaller slice of the population. The vast majority of people are giving us the ultimate dis, “I wouldn’t do this even if you paid me.”

We have come to treat people like a commodity, victims of the never-ending push for lower prices and faster answers, too often without regard to quality. And they know it.

Several years back I heard Pete Cape give a talk in which he said, “We have allowed this industry to be taken over by venture capitalist and technology geeks.” True enough. But I know a lot of serious, well-trained people in this industry who would do things differently if given the chance. To them I say, don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. There has to be a better way.

Reg Baker is Executive Director of MRII.

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