Consumer surveys waste our time while promising elusive insights

October 28, 2022 3:33 am
Survey asks: How would you rate your experience today?

Surveys clog our inboxes daily. Do you take a chance to fill one out or simply hit the “delete” button? (Eric Thomas for Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

They are in my inbox. They are in my voicemail. They are in my social media. They are in my postal mail.

They come from everywhere: from the shoe company, from my family physician, from my corporate pharmacy, from my recent hotel stay, from my last airline flight, from my favorite barbecue restaurant and from my air conditioning repair guy. 

Yes, they are surveys. And no, I’d rather not.

In this, my 70th column for Kansas Reflector, I am giving myself the right to complain. Many previous weeks I have jotted down an issue, only to realize that I would sound like a 2022 version of Andy Rooney blended with Jerry Seinfeld. (“What’s the deal with the names of cell phones these days? I mean, an iPhone Pro. Who are we kidding? Is there really a pro level cell phone, along with the pro level soccer shoes my son thinks he needs?”)

I am gifting myself that right today, because I think my complaint about the blizzard of surveys we receive has larger significance. Our consumer economy has wired its nervous system to our attitudes with surveys like this. We imagine our responses, when aggregated with thousands — no, millions — of others cause businesses to twitch and pivot. 

Like the grumpy guy yelling, “Get off my lawn!”, I have simply stopped responding.

Perhaps you too have resorted to ignoring or unsubscribing. If you have, you’ve likely experienced the tenacity of these surveys. The more you ignore them, the more frequently the messages arrive, the more precious your response seems to be. 

My car mechanic is relentless. Repeated emails, when ignored, only lead to a voicemail pleading for my affirmation that, “Yes, my oil change was so efficient that it stirred my soul into a religious ecstasy.” Shouldn’t it be enough that I didn’t call to complain? Shouldn’t that signal my satisfaction? 

As consumers, we are leery of surveys because of the tricks they use. My least favorite is one I will call, “Just One Question.” Clicking through your inbox, you see that your dog groomer wants to be sure that everything was miraculous with Mae Mae’s shampoo and shave session. In the body of the email, you only see one question, on a scale from “Grrrreat” to “Arf-ly Awful.” As you click, you realize the deceit: your willingness to answer that one question has catapulted you to a 74-question online questionnaire that includes the request to write a sonnet about your experience. 

But you know who is the very worst during this moment of the ubiquitous survey? Me.

Just this month, I sent two surveys to my nonprofit members for their opinions. Each semester, each of my students receives a message from the university, explaining how vital their responses are. My hypocrisy is mighty here.

– Eric Thomas

Just this month, I sent two surveys to my nonprofit members for their opinions. Each semester, each of my students receives a message from the university, explaining how vital their responses are. My hypocrisy is mighty here. 

What am I thinking when I send a survey? Like many people seeking to satisfy clients (in my case, members of an association), I envision folks opening our newsletter, brewing up a cup of coffee, staring out the window to thoughtfully consider our questions, before answering philosophically and revealingly. I fantasize that those insights will direct me to an enlightened decision. 

When we construct these surveys we strive to reach everyone in our audience —- especially the hard-to-reach corners. The people who we struggle to see face-to-face, they are monitored with a survey, rather than called on the phone for a personal chat. We convince ourselves that everyone has a voice through surveys. 

However, responses to my classroom surveys each semester show how distant that fantasy is. First of all, the response rate is comically low. Out of 100 students, I routinely get only a dozen responses. (I should note that this response rate has plummeted both in the wake of the pandemic and after the university migrated away from paper surveys. College students, like most of us, despise email . . . and surveys.) Those responses generally come from the extremes. 

The surveys alternate between crushingly bitter and delusionally forgiving. Comments whiplash between “Eric treats us like kindergartners who can’t be trusted” and “His classes are the reason that I am still enrolled at this university.” The vertigo makes it impossible to divine how I am doing or what I might change.

Here is perhaps the biggest injustice of surveys. We beg for our audience’s trust. We persuade a few, mostly earnest, people to donate their time by responding. Yet the results are so scattered and thinly sampled that they are unreliable. Our earnest respondents have their time betrayed.  

Perhaps that is why I have such a visceral reaction to trash the surveys that I receive. 

Consumer surveys promise the honest cross-section of your audience, an attitudinal distillation of your people. But what they often deliver is the brown-nosing from your biggest fans or poop-hurling from your embittered adversaries. 

(To be clear, I am not maligning the valuable work of trustworthy researchers and the government to do real science and social science. Their measures of our attitudes about everything from vaping to teen sex can provide a reliable barometer over years, and often decades.)

But as for consumer surveys, I will continue to quickly click delete.

Just one more thing before I end. If you were to rate this column, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “simply brilliant,” what would you …

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.