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Online Surveys for Outsourcing Market Research: Garbage In, Garbage Out

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In his latest monthly newsletter, U.K. money-saving guru Martin Lewis gives his readers advice on how to make money from filling in online surveys. I rather like his opening line, which reads “Willing to give views on One Direction, washing-up liquid or what goes on between your bedsheets? If so, it's possible to earn £100s a year, without any special skill or talent.”

Of course he’s referring to the plethora of B2C online surveys. But there’s also no shortage of B2B surveys out there. Many small businesses looking to keep costs to a minimum are making use of online B2B surveys to gather marketing data, and the attractions of doing so are clear, including real-time results, automated reporting, and avoidance of human error. 

Online surveys have their place, but it’s important to remember that they are not a one-size-fits-all solution for B2B data gathering for market research. They only work when the business in question is looking for straightforward answers to concise questions within a tightly structured framework, when the survey is targeting general respondents, and when the whole thing can be completed in less than 15 minutes.

For extensive data gathering in complex B2B markets, with wide-ranging and searching questions aimed at getting beneath the skin of, for example, a specific service offering or specific business issue, online surveys fall hopelessly short. Popular as it may be to decry telephone and face-to-face interviews as being out-dated, this is exactly where these traditional methods come into their own - by directly targeting participants with relevant, highly specific roles, responsibilities and job titles, filtering out the white noise, and engaging participants in a meaningful dialog. We doubt whether many CXOs spend their time filling in online forms, but we do know that they’re willing to talk when the time is right and the topic is important to them.   

NelsonHall is in the business of delivering insightful outsourcing market intelligence. While an online survey might occasionally confirm which way the wind is blowing, we wouldn’t use one to gather the detailed market and vendor data we need to drive our research. Every vendor profile we write is based on one or more interviews of an hour and a half each, with execs from the appropriate business unit. Every NEAT vendor assessment we conduct is based on direct interviews, client references, and rigorous analysis using a minimum of 30 specific evaluation criteria. And every end-user project we conduct is based on highly targeted telephone interviews using a combination of quantitative and qualitative questions designed to reveal a level of detail that could never to garnered from an online survey. And we know exactly who we are speaking to - it is simply not possible to fill in the types of dummy responses that can (and do) happen in online surveys.

Some firms would have you believe that they can deliver insightful outsourcing research using online crowdsourcing. And some firms write outsourcing vendor profiles based on information entered into standard forms by the vendors themselves: a sure-fire way of collecting vendor marcomms and wishful thinking, and certainly no basis for accurate data gathering, let alone objective analysis. 

The simple fact is that, in complex B2B markets, there are no easy shortcuts to reliable, accurate and meaningful research data. While online methods are quick and easy, essential market research principles such as representative sampling and screening out of unsuitable respondents tend to get lost. And, of course, online surveys lack direct interaction with the respondent. There is simply no substitute for direct interaction, which enables the skilled B2B interviewer to gather the relevant information by the simple expedient of an intelligent conversation.

In an age in which most of us are glued to screens of one form or another most of the time, it’s healthy to step back and ask whether the answers to all our problems really can be found online. In the case of complex B2B research, the answer is simple: ‘no’.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few views about One Direction that I’d like to get off my chest.  

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