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The survey epidemic is upon us - and something must be done

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 1, 2016
The era of the spam survey is upon us, and I'm in need of a padded room. Fortunately, Scott Miller of Vision Critical sees change coming - it can't come soon enough.

It happens, my belaugered friends. It happens A LOT. Companies need our input. They need to know exactly how we feel about the button we just pressed, the web page we just clicked on. They need us to fill out... a survey.

I woke up this morning, checked my caller ID. The first caller of the day? A survey. Every customer interaction, no matter how trivial, triggers a survey. If my toothpaste company knew when I finished brushing (someday they probably definitely will - yikes!) they would send me a freaking survey.

Last night, while performing triage on my mother's scanner, I unsuccessfully clicked on a broken Canon support web page. But one thing wasn't broken. Care to venture a guess? Yup, the survey pop-up:


A provider that cut off services in my country a year ago still wants my useless input:

survey-hell two

Southwest sent me a "how was your flight" survey while I was still in the air. A clothier sent me "rate our services" spam before the shirt arrived. Oh, and if your Internet goes down and you call Comcast, you have to listen to their survey pitch - and accept or decline - before you can navigate their phone tree and actually fix your broken whatever. EVERY SINGLE TIME you call.

Something must be done.

But no one wants to read a survey rant - you could easily rattle off your own. So I did an interview with someone who IS trying do something about it: Scott Miller, CEO of Vision Critical, and author of the ebook Why Ad-Hoc Surveys Don't Work (free with sign up). You can also check out Vision Critical's infographic, The Tyranny of Spam Surveys.

Let's be honest here - I didn't need an interview; I needed a therapy session. Miller handled my survey angst like a skilled social worker. And he shined a small glimmer of hope: it turns out that survey mania ISN'T effective. Miller thinks we'll see this idiocy replaced by better tactics. As we tick through my burning questions, what better place to start then:

Survey frenzy: why is this happening?

Miller's short answer: because surveys are still a $20-30 billion industry. Oh, and because of "technology-enabled laziness." Now we're cooking! Miller explained that surveys represent a clunky, old school approach to determining sentiment - an approach that is now being disrupted (thank goodness!):

Survey research has been dramatically disintermediated. That disintermediation started about a decade ago when customers - for the first time ever - started being able to talk about brands and companies and products without the company engaging in the conversation. [Prior to the social web], the only way that companies could gather intelligence about customers was to pepper you with surveys.

As the customer gains a public voice and sentiment is easier to capture, the survey is forced to change - or appear tone deaf and intrusive. But Miller acknowledges that the survey industry is slow to accept their shrill shortcomings:

To be very honest, we think most of the conventional survey research world still doesn't understand what the [empowered customers] means. It doesn't mean "gather more intelligence from that person because that person is now more powerful." It means embrace the idea that you have to engage that person on their terms. Our view of the world is that companies should no longer be out trying to gather information about the customer experience or the customer product - they should be trying to make that process part of the customer experience.

Can you make surveys part of a compelling customer experience? We'll get back to that, but first: if surveys are intrusive and out-of-touch, then, by definition, they are spam.

Ergo, surveys are spam

Miller's definition of survey spam: "The metric that we use is simple. If customers that you're reaching out to don't respond, don't engage in high volumes, then you're spamming them."

In their spam surveys infographic, Vision Critical defines four elements of the "spam survey":

  • They are one-way conversations, strictly about the results the survey maker wants to acquire, not the interests of the customer
  • They appear out of nowhere, uninvited, and most often, unwelcome
  • They are impersonal and generic, not connected to the data or experience of the individual customer
  • They are often overly long, not respecting the time and effort required of the customer

I'd say 99 percent of the surveys I receive easily qualify as spam - how about you? (I'll grant exception to industry research surveys like Esteban Kolsky's, where input is solicited via a blog post and the results are shared with participants afterward).

So how do we change this sorry state off affairs? Miller believes change is afoot, as survey participation rates continue to drop. Check out these numbers from their infographic:

  • 72 percent say surveys interfere with the experience of a web site
  • 80 percent say they have abandoned a survey halfway through
  • 52 percent say they won't spend more than three minutes filling out a survey

(From OpinionLab - I was going to say "of people surveyed" but that is too dangerously ironic).

We also know that response rates on surveys dropped from 36 percent in 1997 to a meager 9 percent in 2004, as per Pew Research Center. I asked Miller why Pew hasn't updated that number since 2004. He's not sure, but thinks the result would be embarrassing for the survey industry.

The problem is that with the rise of technology-triggered surveys, companies can rationalize crummy response rates versus, say, a failed/expensive direct mail survey. That's the dark side of this outlook, which would imply: more spam surveys coming your way. Miller has a brighter view, but he admits that this tech has become intrusive. When I ranted about getting pinged every time I perform the simplest of web site actions, Miller responded:

When they hit you every time you have some an event or trigger, I would consider that to be technology-enabled laziness. By the way, we do not advocate that.

Surveys are impersonal; companies rarely act on the results - cynicism ensues

I hit Miller with two more points. Surveys are impersonal. They're not enjoyable. It's very rare you can stamp what you feel into them. It's usually an endless list of "rate this from one to five." It's almost impossible to get across what you really think. Miller responded:

We agree with you entirely. Our belief is that the closer our engagements are to actual human behavior, human conversations, the more accurate they're going to be. You know what the number one thing that humans do when they're having a conversation? They recall things from the past in order to trigger the next conversation, the next question, the next comment.

What non-humans do is they simply look at it at a point in time data and trigger an activity. I don't care who you are. I don't care what you told me in the past. You did this, now rate it if you will.

We believe that is dying. We believe that it's inappropriate. We believe just like you said, that it is too impersonal - and most importantly - it's going to be inaccurate because it doesn't build upon intelligence you already have the potential to leverage.

I also take issue with the lack of transparency and follow-through. Surveys accomplish nothing and result in no action. If I knew my feedback would improve services, I'd take the damn survey. Here Miller agrees, but only to a point:

In defense of the industry, they actually are using the information, but what they're doing is they're taking your responses, they are aggregating them with those of 50,000 other people, and they're measuring and making a macro decision based on that. That's the way that the research world was built, on samples. Quite frankly, in some cases, they still call it samples. You and I were "samples."

The wrap - can there be a non-spam survey?

So does Miller believe there can be a non-spam survey? Yes, of course - Vision Critical is informed by that belief. A non-spammy survey would be the opposite of what we dismantled here.

Miller outlined characteristics of a quality survey:

  • Demonstrate to your target participant that you know something about them and that you're reaching out for a reason that's relevant to them.
  • Deliver the survey in a multi-device manner, so participants can fill it out on any device, and think mobile-first.
  • Do not ask anything that is "nice to know." Ask only the "must haves."

Miller's ultimate criteria is response rates. He says that Vision Critical's customers respond in three to four times the rates of a typical survey.

But it's not just what you ask; it's how. Survey "asks" should be a natural byproduct of an existing customer relationship/community. That gets back to the point Miller made about embedding the survey process in the customer experience. Or, as I put it:

Don't even think about surveys you are confident that you have an engaged community, and then I would consider a survey as one possible approach. I'll give Miller the last word, along with a well-earned Vision Critical plug for helping me process my survey angst:

All the things you've complained about helped create the momentum that Vision Critical has enjoyed. Let's face it, we're in the right place at the right time. We didn't create the empowered customer. We're just trying to help companies engage with that person, and gather intelligence and deliver intelligence back as a result. I do think the marketplace will police the type of things that are driving you crazy. It'll take a while, but most importantly, you have to decide to not participate in the things that don't matter to you - and that will help purge the bad behaviors out of the marketplace.

No problem Mr. Miller - no more spam surveys for me. And with all the powers invested in me by my inbox, I pray to the merciless gods of spam that you are right.

p.s. the exact second I hit "publish," my cell phone rang. "Can I speak to Jonathan Reed?"

Updated April 2, 2016 am with a link to the magic toothbrush and a classic picture that reflects the mood of the piece.

Image credit - Desperate employee © olly -

Disclosure - Diginomica has no financial ties to Vision Critical. I reached out to Vision Critical's PR to set an interview, based on their content on spam surveys.

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