Myth Busters Takes On Online Research

By Debra Semans, Senior Vice President, Polaris Marketing Research

Online Research is a great addition to the marketing research toolbox, but it is time to separate hype from reality. In this article, we try to bring some perspective to the strengths and weaknesses of online research to help you make better decisions about using this methodology.

Myth #1: Online is the only methodology you need anymore.

Not true. Online is a great tool, but there are definitely situations when you will need to look at phone, IVR and mail methodologies. For example, are all your respondents online and can they read and enter data? Lack of internet access by some respondents could introduce a significant bias into your results. Do you have permission to email them? Do you have a double-opt-in list available? If not, you may find yourself being accused of unintentionally spamming respondents and blacklisted. We have also found that certain types of surveys, such as lost customer and win-back, are not successful with online surveys. When you need to convince a respondent to participate, you need a personal touch. Finally, some companies contemplating a survey where the sponsor will be known choose not to use online in order to better express their brand relationship with the customer (for example through telephone contact or in-person interviewing).

Myth #2: Online research is cheaper.

Partially true. There are many fixed costs in marketing research, such as questionnaire design, sample prep, data cleaning, analysis and reporting, that do not differ by methodology. Data collection costs are only a small portion of the total cost of marketing research projects. So online surveys are cheaper � when you need a very large sample size (e.g, above 1,000). But for most purposes, when the sample size is in the 300 to 600 range, costs for online research and telephone surveys are very comparable.

Myth #3: Online surveys get a better response rate.

Not true. While this was true once, when online surveying was just introduced and people were eager to try it, online research has fallen victim to the same decreasing response rates as other methodologies. While the specifics differ from study to study (and marketing research company to marketing research company), Polaris�s general experience has been that telephone surveys still generate the highest response, followed by online and then by mail and IVR.

Myth #4: Online surveys are easier for respondents.

Sometimes true. This really depends on the survey itself, the population and the questionnaire. For many analysis techniques, such as discrete choice, Max Diff and conjoint, online surveying is the only methodology that offers enough stimulus control and respondent access to work. Certainly if you want to display graphic information (e.g., pictures of concepts), online surveys are great. However, for other situations, other methodologies might work better. You also have to consider the topic and the sensitivity of the topic for the respondent. We once did a survey evaluating the respondent�s perception of stress related to their satisfaction with their sex lives � yes, I think that worked better as an online survey!

Myth #5: We can do online research in-house.

Partially true. The plethora of online research software on the market (both stand alone and as part of CRM or e-marketing software) make it very tempting to DIY � and often, that is exactly what you should do. But before automatically going it alone, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have the knowledge and experience to do this survey myself? Do I have the time available to devote to this project?

  • Can I remain objective in developing the survey and analyzing the data?

  • Will my sponsorship introduce a bias for the respondents?

  • Will the people who are asking for the research find the results credible if they come from me rather than an objective, professional research firm?

  • Would the perspective of an objective, professional research firm help us get better information?

Online research is a fundamental tool for marketing researchers, but don�t let its popularity blind you to potential drawbacks and weaknesses. Include it in your toolbox, but evaluate each survey individually to determine the optimal methodology.

Debra Semans is the Senior Vice President for Polaris Marketing Research, with responsibility for Account Management, Marketing and Business Development. With more than 25 years of marketing experience, Debra brings rich and varied experience to her clients.

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