As researchers, we depend on the cooperation of respondents.  Whether we’re trying to field a telephone survey, recruit for a biometric study, or conduct any other kind of primary research, if people won’t cooperate with us we don’t get the research done.

Yet I can’t count the number of times over the years when I’ve had a research client comment to me, “I never take surveys.”  Sometimes this type of comment is made by a graphic designer or copywriter, but frequently it comes from a research director or marketing manager who is in charge of the project.  Worst of all, too often the comment is made in a condescending manner.  The attitude essentially is, “Imagine those people sitting at home and actually answering our recruiting call – what saps.”

Response rates to industry surveys such as the GRIT study are often frustratingly low, as well.  According to industry guru Leonard Murphy (and I use that description solely to encourage enthusiastic promotion of this blog post!), the response rate on the latest GRIT study is estimated at about 2%.  That means 98% of the researchers who are daily asking people to participate in their studies in turn refused to participate in this one.

When I was conducting in-depth interviews with client-side researchers a few years ago for the GRIT study, many of the people we invited to participate declined.  While a few politely told us that corporate policy kept them from being interviewed, or that they were going to be on the road for the next month, most simply didn’t even bother to respond to the invitation.

What gives?  How can we expect people to participate in our studies if we as researchers won’t even participate in research?  Isn’t that the very definition of hypocrisy?

“Ah,” the non-participating researcher says, “but I’m extremely busy.  I don’t have the time to respond to stuff like that at work because I’m swamped with important research projects, and at home I’m busy with my family.”  While that may be true, the single mother I want in my online focus group is also extremely busy trying to work and raise her kids.  The college student I want doing my mobile study is extremely busy taking 16 units, writing for the campus newspaper, and holding down a part-time job at Starbucks trying to pay for her textbooks.  The IT manager I want in my B2B study is likely just as busy at work as I am.

“Well,” the non-participating researcher explains, “a lot of the studies I have participated in previously were poorly done/boring/I couldn’t even understand the interviewer.  I see no reason to subject myself to a boring, irrelevant questionnaire.”  If we as researchers don’t want to participate in bad research projects, why are so many in our industry still writing 30-minute questionnaires with ten minutes’ worth of repetitive grids?  Why are so many telephone field centers employing people who are hard to understand because they rush through the script as quickly as possible, in order for the end client to pay less for the fieldwork?  If we don’t want to participate in bad or boring research, what makes us think respondents do?

I am not advocating that researchers need to participate in any research that comes their way.  I have politely declined phone surveys when they caught me in the middle of dinner.  I have quit in the middle of online surveys that were poorly designed or confusing, or phone surveys where the interviewer was so poor that I had trouble understanding the questions.  I have declined to participate in certain projects when I was on deadline and simply could not take the time at that moment.  And I won’t engage in any research that is irrelevant to me, or where I feel my participation could adversely affect the project (since I’ve moderated a few thousand qualitative sessions, no moderator wants me in one of his projects).

But if I consistently refuse to participate in research, what right do I have to expect people to help me do my job by participating in my studies?

Maybe the Insights Association should establish a new ethical rule:  researchers cannot conduct projects unless they also participate in projects.  Maybe that way, the response rate to the next GRIT study will inch all the way up to 3%.

It’s time to end the hypocrisy and support the industry in which you work.


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