It has become fashionable to say that the survey is dead. Ray Poynter, founder of The Future Place, and as passionate a public speaker as we have in market research, interrupted a measured defense of survey research with the cry of “Rubbish!” Ray said that he expects the survey will be dead in 20 years. The scene was London in March at the Market Research Society’s annual conference. Ray said that social media is the future, and surveys are outdated and broken.

In a follow-up post to his blog, “No Surveys in 20 Years?,” Ray clarified that he wasn’t saying all surveys were dead – public opinion research will always need its surveys. But commercial research will no longer be fielding surveys – at least, not surveys that are recognizably questionnaires, and certainly nothing that takes longer than 10 minutes for a respondent to complete. Surveys are broken, to Ray’s mind, because of the lack of availability of affordable random samples.

Many, including Ray, are talking about social media research as the future. As the Web has evolved from a place to shop to a place to socialize, more and more conversations are taking place online. People are talking about products and brands: looking at just Twitter alone, one Penn State study found that 20 percent of tweets were asking about or discussing products. While today the young are disproportionately likely to use social media, certainly in the future, such conversations will be representative of consumers in general.

I for one welcome our new social media overlords. But even in a world of over sharing, people aren’t talking about everything. I now frequently use social media research in the early stages of a study, and I find some brands and products are hardly being discussed at all, especially business brands or consumer brands in uninspiring product categories (with apologies to my friends in the insurance industry). And even for those brands that are being discussed, consumers are often talking about only the most prominent products or a few types of services. Very often specific questions that my customers have are not being discussed at all.

Social media does not have to be listen only. You can certainly ask specific questions to social networks or to proprietary MROCs (market research online communities). Both can produce rich qualitative discussions that can provide preliminary answers to research questions. But who are these conversations representative of?

Until you do a survey, you can’t find out how projectable these attitudes and behaviors are to your target population. Ray would argue this is because of the decline of RDD surveys are no longer projectable. But, if we are going to assume that social media will become more representative in the future, then online activity in general will become even more broadly used. And once you are capturing customers’ e-mail addresses for online transactions and service requests, you can initiate surveys of random samples of those lists, and have projectable results to your online population. In fact, at the Research 2010 conference, easyJet—the UK’s largest airline—discussed that their e-mail list contains the addresses of 98 percent of their customers: they can and do conduct random sample surveys.

Do they want to subject their customers to 30 minute surveys, full of grids, incomplete choice lists and required questions? Of course not. Large organizations can conduct short, well-designed questionnaires of small random samples. Even small organizations will need to improve their survey practices, or watch their own response rates decline tremendously. Let’s hope that in the future only bad survey practices are dead. Long live the survey!

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.