As part of a promotion for my two new ebooks, I’m sharing selections from “Building a Better BS Detector” parts 1 & 2 about market research. Interested in reading more? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Respondents fail to tell the truth in market research to prevent misconceptions of others about themselves
This issue can wreck any research project, qualitative or quantitative, online or person-to-person. Very often, the first person to sound off about a given topic in groups will set the agenda for the rest of the group, since sometimes people prefer to be polite and not disagree (also known as the dominant respondent problem). Moreover, many participants feel pressure to look acceptable in the eyes of the other respondents.
Even in something as anonymous as an online survey, people feel judged or at least tracked in this era of NSA wiretapping and Google omniscience. So it’s crucial for the moderator or the research instrument to give people permission to look misinformed or unglamorous or whatever. Some common tactics:
- Put yourself in their shoes. In person-to-person interviews and focus groups, you can put respondents at ease by saying “I sometimes do that myself.” For instance, instead of saying, “Does anyone have trouble finding the right app on a phone?” you can ask “I don’t know about you, but I fumble with phone when I need to find an app. What about you?”
- Gently encourage disagreement. Sometimes you can read someone’s body language well enough to know that they don’t agree with something that someone else has said. Other times, you can take a shot in the dark. In either case, you can get mileage out of asking a respondent “Joe, can you think of a reason to disagree with what John just said?” Alternately, you can do your all of your groups in New York City, where people rarely feel constrained to agree about anything.
- Hell is other people. Remember the old sitcom gag about someone whose “friend” is in trouble? This ruse works in focus groups. Maybe respondents won’t give their honest opinion, but they might say what they think other people think. So ask something along the lines of “what might other people say about…”
Note, however, that you as the researcher need to keep an eye on the line between what the respondent thinks and what the respondent thinks other people think. Make sure you know when the respondent is really talking about himself.
- Confront them with evidence. You can sometimes get people to be a little more honest with you by giving them a chance to look smart. Or you can also play bad cop with them. For instance, you can say to a respondent “67% of women in their 30s watch reality shows. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
- This same evidence-focused approach works in quantitative research as well. Merely by prefacing a question with a fact can give respondents a sense of not being alone.
Naturally, marketers can abuse this use of facts. Political candidates employ this approach in push polling, a tactic designed not to understand constituents’ feelings about an issue, but rather to cast their opponent in a negative light (“would you agree with the 89% of the electorate that Candidate A is wrong when he says…”). Use with caution.
- While surveys allow respondents a certain license to speak negatively of other people and brands, they still run the risk of making respondents themselves feel scrutinized. As a result, respondents may feel reluctant to indicate honest information about themselves. One way to counteract that reluctance entails leaving personal questions (gender, age, family composition) to the end. Think of it this way: if the first question someone asked you was “how old are you?” how might that color your perceptions of subsequent questions?