July 3, 2024

Competing in an attention economy

How online survey panels can find their way again.

While the focus of many marketers these days is on tech and AI, there’s still plenty of market research that is old-fashioned in comparison.

Take surveys, for instance. Though the context has changed—with smartphones and online surveys replacing cold-calls to your landline—the basic philosophy hasn’t.

At Unlock Surveys, part of the Stagwell Marketing Cloud family, we’re genuinely passionate about supporting the industry’s overall ecosystem and making sure that survey panels continue to be effective, efficient, and worthwhile for respondents.

Before we dive into why that matters, let’s cover some basics.

What is a survey panel, anyway?

An online panel is a community of people who have opted in to answer surveys in exchange for some kind of digital currency. 

Why do they do this? 

Well, being an influencer with some small sway on the decisions of Nike or Patagonia can be more exciting than being a micro-influencer on Instagram who is followed by 400 strangers. Or sometimes a respondent just wants the cash—there’s a million reasons why people join. 

Why you should care if the survey experience gets worse

Even if you’ve never answered a survey, the quality of polling has an effect on your life—every trip you take to a store, the ads you see on YouTube, things like that.

If polling quality is inferior, the results might be minor, like whether Coca-Cola decides to launch a new iteration of Sprite that everyone ends up hating. 

Or it could be more consequential, like skewed and inaccurate political polling that affects presidential voter turnout.

The importance of empathy

One key thing we’re constantly thinking about at Unlock is an empathetic approach to survey respondents themselves. 

Part of that means facing up to what has made the survey experience subpar in the recent past: shrinking rewards for participation; a spammy approach to invites; a system that might bounce you from one survey to the next, asking you to re-enter the same basic information each time.  

Surveys exist chiefly because brands want access to real people and their opinions. So the companies that source panel respondents need to treat them with understanding; they need to elevate the overall experience by putting themselves in the shoes of the respondents they’re targeting.

Would you want to answer a poorly designed, glitchy, 50+ question survey about the weight of a new cell phone? 

If you had questions about a survey you took—or the status of your compensation for completing it—would you want a soulless automated response, or contact from an actual CX professional?

What if your time was being wasted by a survey company contacting you over and over again with opportunities, only to be rejected mid-stream because you haven’t bought a new car in the past year, or you’re not a yoga aficionado?

If survey panel firms start ignoring the basic needs, interests, and expectations of the very real humans they depend on to exist, the entire industry suffers. 

There’s a lot of churn in the survey world, and if the user experience is subpar—if the respondent doesn’t end up feeling valued in any way whatsoever—it can be enough to make them drop out of the entire polling ecosystem.

So what?, you might say. But when potential respondents stop responding for the foreseeable future, the quality of data overall can plummet. 

That’s bad news for marketing professionals, and it’s bad news for everyday consumers, too.

Tried and true methods

Due to privacy legislation, cookies—that cutesy name for those nuggets of data that track your online behavior—will be mostly phased out by 2026. 

Marketers are having a slow-motion panic attack about this, since it’ll make understanding how consumers interact with brands and online ads much more difficult. 

The industry is meanwhile trying to stack a bunch of tech-enabled ways to understand consumers—gathering data based on their phone habits, online behaviors, and ad exposures. 

Combining all these methods together, without cookies, is what the next decade of consumer understanding looks like.

So yes, we can use AI and tech to do some really cool stuff that makes understanding consumers more robust

But at the end of the day, you sometimes want the equivalent of a test kitchen from 50 years ago: Do you like Option A or Option B better? And we need people to be willing to share those opinions.

Who is willing to do the legwork to better understand their consumers? We’ll still have these tried-and-true survey methods. They’re reliable, but they’re old-school. They’re not sexy, they’re not new—but they come with decades of statistical rigor and known ROI.

Ultimately, brands and their research agency partners need to understand that they’ve exhausted the general population, who’ve all tried to be survey respondents over the past 10 years and who haven’t had a good experience. 

Competing in an attention economy

I always say my competitor isn’t other survey panel firms. My competition is the 50 other things you can do on your phone on any given day, from Facebook to TikTok and Instagram and everything in between. 

Can we create an experience that feels rewarding enough to repeat? Can we create an ecosystem where people feel valued participating in research?

The industry needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and think about the future—how do we get real people to trust us to use their data, keeping it private and secure, while also using their opinions in ways that make them feel that giving us their time is valuable.

Adam Dietrich

Adam Dietrich is the managing director of Unlock Surveys.

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