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We’re Hearing the Last Gasp of Online Research

Advocates of online panels are struggling to find something – anything – upbeat to say as the return on investment for online market research continues to plunge. To us, it sounds like whistling past the graveyard.

Recent published defenses of online panels written by panel-providers illustrate the increasingly embattled mindset of those who still cling to them. With the graveyard looming ever nearer, it’s getting hard for online  proponents to whistle a happy tune.

Now they’re arguing that online panels would work just fine, if only researchers did a better job of wording and structuring surveys – or if they made the experience more like playing a video game. 

The problem is that in 2016, adequate panels – never mind superior ones — simply can’t be recruited via the old method of sending out emails with links to online surveys. As has been exhaustively documented, the public has moved to smartphones — and citizens of the new mobile universe are not responding to email invitations that are the port of entry to online questionnaires. The mobile app and the text message now dominate our information exchanges.

One online proponent recently acknowledged that many online surveys have response rates in the low single-digits. 

With response rates that low, research that stays in a false online comfort zone  won’t be  whistling past the graveyard much longer. It will be inside the gates, six feet under.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The norm for MFour’s all-mobile surveys is a 50% response rate, with fully representative demographics and fast results.  We’ve led the field by creating a smartphone app that perfects the mobile survey-taking experience, and we’ve transformed  panel quality by cultivating an engaged, million-member active panel that enjoys taking surveys on mobile devices.

Not everything should change.  The enduring, bedrock values of market research must be upheld. The job, as always, is to collect sophisticated data that leads to useful insights and helps drive effective, well-informed business decisions.

Contrary to a common misconception, state-of-the-art mobile approaches (as opposed to slapdash ones) uphold the values of sophisticated market research. MFour’s app easily handles complex surveys with  LOI of 20 minutes or more, with drop-off rates under 6 percent and advanced options such as Geo-location and multimedia to enhance questions and answers. Going mobile doesn’t mean settling for less — as long as it’s mobile done right.

The question now is not whether the industry will change, but how long some market research firms and corporate research departments will try to stay in the  online comfort zone despite dwindling returns. Will the recent round of published, last-gasp defenses of online panels delay the big decision?

Chris St. Hilaire, MFour’s cofounder and CEO, read those articles and had a few comments:

“It’s as if they’re saying, `Our ship is sinking and here’s what we should do – prettier deck chairs.’ Or it’s like assuming that phone booths can make a comeback if we paint them a prettier color.”

It’s downright ironic, adds the MFour leader, that professionals in an industry whose mission is to find out what’s on consumers’ minds can advocate trying to reach them online when those same consumers have moved en masse to a new mobile neighborhood.

“It’s part of a great push-back right before the final transformation,” St. Hilaire said. “It’s the last stand before the industry goes completely to mobile.”