Marketing surveys via the Web better than you think  
Reprinted from The Denver Business Journal
Alf Nucifora  

I was recently asked by a client for an opinion about the validity of Web surveys. My immediate inclination was to denigrate the methodology, in the process trotting out the commonly heard negatives, e.g., not random enough, questionable sample composition, hard to verify the data, etc.

But online research is now beyond the "prove it" stage. The marketing research community, if it chooses to be fair, will concede the point that there is now an irreversible decline in traditional data collection, e.g. phone or mail surveys. The techniques are too costly, too laborious and subject to limited response rates.

Meanwhile, Web surveys are estimated to have achieved a penetration rate of 15 percent to 20 percent of the target survey pool. That makes a lot of sense in an environment where there are now in excess of 190 million Internet users in the U.S. and Canada alone.

Overcoming the objections

The objections to online research are understandable and, to some degree, rational. But, in every case, there are equally valid counter arguments or mitigating factors.

It's not random enough Neither, for that matter, is the telephone, given the degree of phone screening that currently prevails and the ubiquity of voice mail as a barrier to entry into the home or office.

Response rate Typical response rates will run 1 percent to 2 percent for mail, 10 percent to 15 percent for phone. For online surveys, that number grows to as high as 30 percent to 35 percent where respondent names are drawn from weighted panels. The response rate is even better for B2B research where reliable lists are more readily available, e.g. clients and prospects.

They tend to lie on the Internet But so can they on the telephone. Ever wondered how many administrative assistants fill out the mail surveys for their boss? Internet respondents will freely reveal private demographic information. Ironically, the Internet delivers a perception of anonymity that is greater than the phone or snail mail.

Cost Committed Web survey user companies maintain that they are not yet seeing significant cost savings although the average 20-minute phone interview can cost in the range of $30 to $50 per completed interview vs. $7 to $10 for one completed online.

Timeliness This is where the online survey wins out hands down. Reports and summaries are developed real-time and can be funneled directly to management in a simple, easy-to-digest fashion (resplendent in color, with graphics and charts). Traditional phone/mail surveys require labor-intensive data collection, tabbing, summary and distribution a decidedly non-real-time scenario.

Bad Lists Unquestionably, e-mail lists are subject to corruption unless the online research is conducted using names drawn from a reliable panel or verified database. The risk of bad research is real and palpable and, although it attracts more visibility in the online universe, the disease infests every environment that depends on a list of names for its livelihood.

The one area where online research has not proven popular is in the qualitative arena, specifically online focus groups.

John Maben of the Denver-based marketing research firm TwentyTen Research (and a facilitator of online surveys) believes the jury is still out on the subject. Notes Maben, "It's still a difficult process lots of typing and a chat-room environment that's not always conducive to delivering rich diagnostic feedback."

Even though improved instant-messaging software and Web-casting technology have enhanced the process, there is still something about "seeing the whites of their eyes."

Traditional face-to-face focus group interaction will always provide a degree of personal involvement and insight that the online environment has difficulty matching even for the fast-fingered typist.

Who offers it?

Joel Friedman, CEO of, says, "There can be no doubt as to the validity and growing acceptance of the Web survey. Use of the methodology hasn't grown faster because most market research firms are conservative in their outlook and practice."

Friedman's 4-year-old firm has conducted more than a million online surveys for more than 150 clients including the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Frito-Lay, All-State Insurance and General Mills.

Alf Nucifora is an Atlanta-based marketing consultant. Reach him at



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