Battling Survey Fatigue

Summary: Survey fatigue is genuine concern for surveyors. As more companies survey, the willingness of people to take all these surveys plummets. Applying the golden rule of surveying, can help you stand out, reduce the survey fatigue for your respondents, and increase survey response rates.

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Tragedy of the Commons. Funny how some concepts learned in college have stickiness — and relevance years later in ways not envisioned. The fundamental idea of the Tragedy of the Commons is that a resource that is owned in common will be overexploited. Each individual, acting rationally from his or her point of view, will use the common resource to the point where collectively it will be seriously degraded.

The idea was described by Garrett Hardin in a Science article in 1968 using a town’s common grazing area for the town folks’ animals. One of today’s “commons” is customers’ mindshare. We all fight to get a piece of our customers’ – or prospects’ — attention to the point where it becomes a cacophony and no one gets these people’s full attention.

Consider customer feedback surveys. The New York Times printed an article in March 2012 about the “onslaught” of customer surveys. I couldn’t have used a more apt term — and perhaps because I train people on how to conduct customer survey programs, I am part of the problem! Survey fatigue — or survey burnout — is very real.

Remember when getting a survey invitation to take a web-form survey was novel and fun? (Heck, I can remember when email was novel and fun back in the ’80s.) I do survey design work for a living, so I have a natural incentive to take most any survey. Hey, I might learn something — or find grist for a future article. But even I have reached the burnout stage with the constant requests to give feedback on some website I’m using.

Why has this happened? As the cost of surveying has plummeted due to internet-based survey tools, more and more companies are conducting surveys. The “common” of people’s time, attention, and willingness to take surveys is being overgrazed. If the surveys were well-done, brief and to the point, the overgrazing might be tolerable. But so many surveys are so poorly done — for example, Home Depot’s way too long survey and Yahoo’s insulting survey — that the overgrazing has reached the point of eating the roots, leaving little for the rest of the organizations who might want to collect customer feedback.

Even worse, some surveys aren’t really surveys. They’re a lead generation marketing pitch — or a phishing attack — disguised as a survey.

You might say there’s lots of pastureland from which to graze for respondents, but the problem with survey fatigue is twofold, as I explained in a recent article on survey bias versus survey accuracy.

  • Fatigue leads to lower response rates, reducing statistical accuracy.
  • Fatigue means that those with extreme views are more likely to respond, leading to a serious survey bias, known as non-response bias. That is, those who don’t respond likely have different views from those who do. The survey data that winds up in the survey data base don’t properly reflect all customers’ views. The data are biased.

So what to do? Well, you cannot control other organizations surveying propensities, but by doing a survey program right, perhaps you can shine among the rest.

First, don’t over survey the same people. This is a particular concern for transactional survey programs. You should have some time window in which you would not survey the same person again. My default window for this is three months, which seems reasonable. And don’t survey people who say, “Stop sending me surveys!” That just creates bad word of mouth and could lose a customer.

Second, coordinate your organization’s survey programs. Are other groups in your organization doing surveys that you don’t know about? Two concurrent survey invitations to the same person from different survey programs in the same company presents a really bad image to the respondent. This is why many large companies invest in large (and expensive) customer feedback management systems and a central feedback program office which controls customer contact lists.

Third, keep the surveys short, to the point, and most importantly, engaging. Years ago I took a hotel survey where on the 8th or 9th screen — with many questions per screen — the progress indicator registered 35%. Resist the temptation to turn your transactional survey into a relationship survey. Take a Home Depot “brief” store visit survey and you’ll see what not to do. Market researchers and product managers — no offense if you are one — seem to have very unrealistic assumptions of respondents’ commitment to complete a survey. Know your audience and how bonded they are to you. That will guide their survey tolerance level.

Fourth, make the survey easy to take. Lots of extraneous verbiage increases the respondent burden, which is the work we ask the respondent to do. Checklist questions with lots of options with detailed explanations may generate precise data, but it won’t generate any valid data if no one completes it. If you need that precision, consider conducting interviews. “Think outside the survey box” when building your customer feedback program.

Fifth, consider offering an incentive. I’m not a big fan of incentives since they can promote what I call “monkey typing.” No, I don’t mean “Survey Monkey typing,” but rather, people clicking on any response choice just to get the prize. How valid are the data in that circumstance? It’s garbage. In fact, I have counseled clients to reduce the size of the incentive they were planning to offer. It’s supposed to be a token of appreciation, not payment.

Lastly, incent them to respond by sharing a summary of your findings. Show your respondents that you really mean it when you say their opinion is important. Close the loop and tell them what you’ve learned and what action you’re taking. That of course means that you actually take action. It’s such a simple, powerful idea. Yet, so very few organizations close the feedback loop with their customers.

While we can’t control all the survey noise and overgrazing, we can control our piece of the survey common. Basically, practice the Golden Rule of Surveying. Survey unto others as you would have them survey unto you.