Step 1: Get Out of the Survey Business
By Jason Anderson
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote what turned out to be a somewhat controversial opinion piece about things I would do if I were a market research company. The writing process was not a “fair and balanced” editorial; it reflected my current opinions and beliefs based on what I believe are long-term trends in how research is conducted and acted upon in my corner of the world. I listed eight changes I would pursue, if it were my decision to make. Most of these changes were very substantial, but didn’t include much depth as to why or when or how.
The first one, and I think perhaps the one that stirred up the loudest disagreement, was to “get out of the survey business.” This is obviously not an overnight change. Rather, it’s a call to action to prepare for a future model where the design, programming, fielding, collection, and data processing of surveys has greatly diminished in value. The arguments in favor of this are most obvious in the online space, of course, where we’re bombarded by “opportunities” to be surveyed at every turn. To me, the long-term impact is no different from the challenges faced by advertising: new generations grow up desensitized to media (and surveys), and grow increasingly adept at escaping or manipulating our efforts to interview them.
In other words: not only will surveys be of less value to researchers, but to the interview subjects as well. The days of compensating consumers with virtual points at an exchange rate of $0.50 per hour won’t last forever.
Ignoring the effectiveness issue, there’s also the simple matter of pricing. A cost-conscious research manager and a couple of skilled employees can already generate output faster, cheaper, and of comparable quality to that of a research vendor (assuming you hire good people). Do-it-yourself technologies have (as I’ve said before) removed most of the technical barriers to conducting a quality online survey project. If we simplify the value proposition of a research vendor to needs assessment, methodology and design, execution, analysis and synthesis, and measurement of any post-study actions, where do you currently spend most of your billable hours? Where will you need to be spending them instead if I don’t need you to execute the study?
“But wait!” you say. “We’re a cost-plus industry!” That’s true, most research vendors are cost-plus…today. And the costs of sample acquisition and survey execution offer you a nice buffer in your financial model. But Zoomerang and SurveyGizmo are not cost plus, and the existence of this competing pricing model has permanently changed the perceived value of surveying.
Finding true insight from piles of data, however, is hard. There’s both art and science involved; this is where your years of experience with thousands of studies offers value and competitive advantage. You don’t want to be your clients’ go-to survey supplier, you want to be your clients’ go-to analysis expert. You want me to choose you for a project not because you’re the cheapest, but because you can find things in the data that I can’t. Sometimes, that will be because I don’t have enough human capital to invest in the data; other times, it will be because you have better or specialized skills that I can’t justify year-round.
- Why should you move away from surveys? Your interviewees are increasingly fatigued, and your clients are now your competitors. There are no longer any technical barriers to entry, and the technology itself will move faster than your ability to remain competitive. You will still be involved in surveys, of course, but this shouldn’t be your identity (unless you’re offering a proprietary technology or methodology).
- When should you be ready to change? Before your clients drop you and start doing things themselves.
- How do you make the change? Sell expertise and analytics, not execution. Acknowledge your clients’ DIY efforts and help them do it better. Stop trying to compete with me for my own work. Add value before I start my DIY phase through consultation, and after I’ve collected my data with modelling and analytics that exceed what I might do on my own.