By Hans Eisenbeis
Studies show that studies are becoming less accurate. That’s not a headline in the satirical newspaper the Onion. It’s a fact of life, as consumers are bombarded on a daily basis with requests for their views on everything from taste preferences to political affiliation. In fact, there’s increasing evidence that surveys are biased toward people who don’t mind taking surveys, while the number of those who are disinclined to participate increases (NYTimes.com, 26 August 2014). For example, the Pew Center, one of the juggernauts of objective third-party survey research, recently reported that in 1997 the response rate to its survey work was around 37%. By 2012, that rate had fallen to just 9%.
Why would resistance to survey taking be increasing? We know that a couple of important facts are in play. For example, phone-based surveys are in decline because most people have caller ID, and most people — at least those who aren’t salesmen — don’t answer calls from an unknown number. And landlines are also in decline, while mobile phone numbers are less accessible to pollsters.
But we think the most important factor concerns changing consumer sentiment, increasing sophistication and ubiquitous media exposure. First, consumers are probably feeling some survey fatigue because they’re almost constantly barraged with offers for free stuff and premium access in exchange for their opinions. Then too, our social media networks are driven almost entirely by an economy of likes and retweets — pure acts of thumbs-up and thumbs-down that engage consumers in constant normative evaluation with their environment among friends. Finally, we know that consumers are suspicious of Big Everything, from government to social institutions to major brands. They approach surveys with a jaundiced eye, often assuming the worst about why anyone would care about their opinion, and what it will cost them in terms of time and privacy.