Your Obligations to Survey Participants
Michael R. Hyman, Stan Fulton Chair of Marketing, NMSU
Jeremy J. Sierra, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Texas State University-San Marcos
(Note: In April, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. published Mike and Jeremy’s Marketing Research Kit for Dummies. It is available in paperback [ISBN: 978-0-470-52068-0] and Kindle [ASIM: B003CNQ4LG] versions. The following text is based on Chapter 4 of that book.)
The success of any customer survey you may conduct depends on cooperative respondents. Just like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, you must rely on the kindness of strangers. If you abuse respondents, then you ‘poison the respondent well’ because abusive treatment will discourage its victims from participating in future studies.
We review respondent-related ethical do’s and don’ts for you to follow when conducting a survey. These do’s and don’ts include obtaining consent, avoiding deception, ensuring privacy, representing the research sponsor truthfully, and presenting the survey process overtly.
Consent means saying yes. Informed consent means you’re saying yes with sufficient knowledge of the circumstances. You should guarantee that each respondent who decides to participate in your survey is properly informed about it, can make an informed decision about participation, and has granted a proper and informed consent to participate.
To gain consent, you should give respondents a letter that indicates the following:
· Participation will not harm them psychologically or physically.
· There are no right or wrong answers.
· Although encouraged to answer all questions that pertain to them, they need not answer any questions that makes them uncomfortable.
· A general idea about the goals of your study that does not provide information that needlessly biases responses.
· A statement that the person willingly agrees to participate in the survey, followed by spaces for the participant to date the letter and sign his/her name. By signing this letter, respondents grant their consent.
We all know lying is wrong. Nonetheless, you may need to temporarily disguise the true purpose of a survey to avoid biasing respondents. If respondents are aware of your true interests—for example, you want to know if customers would pay higher prices for your services—then they may alter their answers to serve their interests. (After all, would any customer volunteer to pay higher prices?) If you were conducting a survey to investigate the viability of boosting subscription fees, then the cover letter for your questionnaire could state ‘This study is about consumer responses to different levels of service and associated fees’ without being needlessly deceptive.
Unfortunately, some researchers needlessly deceive respondents. For example, researchers who try to boost response rates by indicating that their questionnaire requires only 10 minutes to complete, when in fact it requires 30 minutes. Such deception likely will inspire many respondents to retaliate with inaccurate answers. Another unnecessary deception: researchers could promise to keep respondents’ answers confidential, yet sell those answers to businesses searching for new customers. Such ill-conceived efforts never remain secret, and once discovered damage trust in the research process, which lowers cooperation rates and boosts future data collection costs.
You could lie about protecting respondents’ anonymity. Many respondents who agree to participate in surveys are reluctant to answer personal background questions, so they do not answer them. Yet answers to these questions may be vital for data analysis purposes, especially when demographics relate strongly to consumers’ behavior.
To overcome this problem, you could mark questionnaires with ultraviolet ink or ID numbers, or use code names that would allow you to link respondents to their answers. That way, you could contact reluctant respondents—most likely by telephone—and pressure them to answer those previously unanswered questions. However, if you promised respondent anonymity in the cover letter introducing your questionnaire, then breaking this promise means you are acting unethically.
Note that confidentiality differs from anonymity. If you promise not to link respondents to their answers, then that is a guarantee of confidentiality, which is what attorneys and physicians grant their clients or patients. In contrast, anonymity means that it is impossible for anyone to link respondents to their answers.
To boost response rates, you could misidentify the survey sponsor. It is well known that people are more willing to answer questionnaires fielded by universities and prestigious national polling organizations (like Gallup or Harris) than by commercial firms. Regardless, you never should lie about your survey’s sponsor. In particular, never pretend that you are conducting academic research. For example, to encourage respondents who otherwise would have opted out of your survey, you could ask field workers—those people who collect your data—to pretend that they are students working on their professor’s research. After all, doesn’t every marketing professor conduct a study about the viability of a new motel in Hobbs, New Mexico?
Assume you own a restaurant and want to study customers’ satisfaction with your food, service, and ambiance. You will receive more honest feedback if they believe that they are participating in a general survey of restaurants, conducted by an independent research company, and your restaurant is included. In this case, it is acceptable not to identify yourself as the research sponsor; failing to identify the sponsor is not lying about the sponsor.
Avoid Sugging and Frugging
Sugging and frugging are two related and obscene-sounding deceptive practices that you should avoid. Sugging is short for selling under the guise of research, and frugging is short for fundraising under the guise of research.
Unfortunately, these practices, especially for telephone interviewing, have negatively affected researchers’ ability to collect survey data. The widespread usage of sugging and frugging have primed potential respondents to assume that any phone solicitation asking them to participate in a survey will ultimately entail a request either to buy something or to contribute to a charitable organization. To avoid such unwanted telephone interactions, people either screen such calls or hang up automatically; as a result, response rates for telephone interviews have dropped precipitously and needlessly increased survey costs.
When people agree to participate in a survey, they should be fully aware of what participation entails. Misrepresenting data collection processes and procedures (for example, to boost response rates and thus reduce research costs) is unethical. Also, respondents cannot provide informed consent to participate in a survey if they are unaware of its purpose.
In particular, be truthful about:
· Required time commitment. To increase response rate, a researcher could tell prospective participants that a questionnaire requires only a half hour to complete when he/she knows that it will take an hour. In fact, failure to disclosure any aspect of the research procedures, such as the use of follow-up questionnaires, also reflects inadequate concern for respondents’ time.
· Survey purpose. To ensure unbiased responses, you may need temporarily to disguise the purpose of a survey; after all, telling people they are participating in a study meant to help the IRS raise income taxes is bound to bias their answers! For example, if you conduct a survey to help you increase the profitability of your Italian restaurant, then it is acceptable to tell people that they are participating in a study about local Italian restaurants. The issue is informed consent; it remains possible with mild misrepresentation but becomes impossible with gross misrepresentation.
· Use of results. Never hide how you will use the results of your survey. If you encourage respondents to believe that they are participating in an academic study when you will use the results for business purposes, then you are acting unethically.
Deliver Promises of Compensation
If you promise to compensate a person for participating in your survey, then do so. To falsely promise respondents a magic decoder ring—or a summary of the research results—will cause them to doubt future promises of compensation for study participation, which will drive up the cost of future research.
Respecting respondents’ privacy doesn’t mean you should not ask respondents for personal background information. Nonetheless, you only should ask such questions if the answers are vital to a study’s success.
It may be necessary, as part of a survey study, to understand key aspects of respondents’ lives, so you may ask them about their education, their occupation, or their income. For example, if you are trying to decide if a high-priced French restaurant would be successful in your neighborhood, then it is acceptable to ask local respondents about their income, as being able to relate dining-out preferences to incomes would help to determine the likelihood of success.
You could take a laissez-faire attitude toward taking responsibility for respondents’ well being. You could try to convince yourself that adult respondents can take care of themselves. That type of thinking fails to show the respect that respondents earn by helping you find the answers to your research questions.
Inadequate concern for respondents’ well being can take many forms:
· Contacting them at an inconvenient time. For example, calling people at dinner time to conduct a forty-five minute telephone interview is inappropriate.
· Incompetent or insensitive interviewers. Ensure that interviewers are trained for proper demeanor, quality of probing questions, and general approach to interacting with respondents. In addition, you always should debrief study participants if temporary deception was required.
· Needlessly depressing questions. Never ask questions that might needlessly depress respondents subsequently. Of course, it is reasonable to ask questions about people’s own funeral arrangements if you are conducting marketing research for a funeral home. Clearly, asking questions about one’s demise is depressing, but it is not needlessly depressing in this case. On the other hand, asking a die-hard Cubs fan about the Cubs’ century-plus failure to win a World Series is needlessly depressing.
Excessive queries. Never query respondents excessively often and reduce the general willingness to answer questions. If people are contacted excessively, to the point that they are no longer gracious about lending researchers their time and energies, then response rates will decrease, response quality will decrease, and most marketing research will become cost prohibitive.