Marketers and Researchers Must Do More to Ensure Real Respondents


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In this new era of online research, more and more companies are testing public opinion and basing important business decisions on what they learn from interacting with consumers on the web. Fast, easy online survey technology makes this possible, but it can be a risky proposition. That’s because companies are making important decisions on the assumption that the people responding to surveys are who they say they are.

Recent real-world experience shows that this is often not the case. In fact, 29 percent of people who join survey panels fail basic fraud tests. Are they real people (and not made-up personas)? Have they joined under aliases? Do they pay attention or just click away on the survey? Even worse, some accepted methods for identifying and discarding fraudulent respondents don’t do nearly enough to ensure an accurate, clean and representative sampling on which companies can base decisions with confidence. Published research has found these survey-takers can triple the risk you make the wrong business decision.

29 percent of people who join survey panels fail basic fraud tests

The Internet has made it easier than ever before for brand-name companies to gauge reactions to their new ideas quickly and inexpensively by tapping into the opinions of what they presume to be their target markets. This is reflected by the fact that the online research industry has grown 30 percent in the last year and in 2007 respondents completed one billion online surveys. Last year companies spent more than $4 billion doing online research. Yet, the data returned by these surveys—data that might be used by a consumer products business to determine its next strategic move—could have serious flaws.

Here are just a couple of real-world examples. These are actual survey-takers who were identified and prevented from continuing to respond to research requests:

  • A man from the mid-west had 130 user accounts. He posed as a woman or a man, always from different email addresses. Oddly, one of his consistent identifying characteristics was that he loves shrimp, but other than that he was using 130 different identities to earn money from participating in market research.
  • A 21-year-old woman from Texas used more than 150 accounts to provide information to market researchers. She always listed her income in the top one percent of all earners. In fact, she had very low income.

Based on real-world validation efforts using a combination of techniques, we have been able to quantify the likely level of fraudulent or questionable survey takers. It’s a scary number: 29 percent. That number breaks down in this way:

  • 24.3 percent of online panelists have no real-world identity:
  • 2.8 percent more tried to join multiple times with different computers, email addresses, or names.
  • 1.65% were caught speeding through surveys or answering non-sensically (i.e. always selecting the middle answer, no matter the question)

This means that 29 percent of the panelist/respondents in a typical online survey may be fraudulent or unreliable. Most leading companies would say that if two to three percent of survey data is questionable that’s too high. Twenty-nine percent is a data disaster and it can have serious business consequences.

Today the most widely accepted method to prevent this type of survey fraud is “digital fingerprinting.” This method attempts to prevent the same computer from taking a survey more than once. Many companies assume that if their survey panels are vetted with this method then the data is clean, accurate and reliable. It isn’t. As we found, this method identified less than 20 percent of the dubious respondents and does not ask the fundamental question “is the person taking the survey who they say they are?” Digital fingerprinting is a useful first step in the process of ensuring honest survey panels, but companies that rely solely on this method are taking a significant risk if they base business decisions on suspect survey samples.

Applying proactive technology to weed suspect panelists out even before they enter your research is paramount.

Market researchers need a more reliable data quality method that focuses on risks and behaviors of both bad panelists as well as bad responses. Applying proactive technology to weed suspect panelists out even before they enter your research is paramount. Pro-active real-time validation can be accomplished by running all panelists through a technology filter that checks that panelists are real people by cross-checking potential online panel participants in real time against an aggregate consumer database that covers 96 percent of individuals in the United States. This enables independent verification of a panelist’s name, address and other relevant information, such as age and income. In essence, it verifies the existence of the potential respondent in the real world. At the same time, technology can determine whether multiple panelist IDs share the same name and address.

Applying technology allows the researcher to remove those panelists who introduce risk into sample quality. This can include respondents whose identity cannot be verified; who have multiple panel IDs but only one real-world ID (indicative of a professional survey-taker); and who have exhibited signs of disengagement across multiple surveys.

Rightfully, consumer goods and services companies expect their market research partners to ensure that the research delivers quality results. To satisfy these companies, research partners must take this problem much more seriously and go beyond the currently accepted methods of vetting survey participants. If we don’t do this the value of online survey data will be, and should be, viewed as less than useful…or even as dangerous.

John Ouren
John Ouren is EVP and general manager, Panels and Communities, at MarketTools where he leads a team dedicated to driving MarketTools panel offerings and TrueSample, the first technology solution to ensure that online respondents are real, unique and engaged. John Ouren brings extensive sales and marketing experience with leading technology and services companies to MarketTools.


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