Tips for sustaining enthusiastic research participants

Editor’s note: Scott Worthge is senior manager, talent development, at DISQO, a Glendale, Calif.-based customer experience platform. 

You’ve heard the phrase “quiet quitting,” where an employee does the bare minimum at work and effectively “clocks out.” You’ve nodded your head in agreement or you’ve rolled your eyes, but regardless of how you feel about the trend, the driver comes down to the perceived value an individual feels they are getting for their work. This is also a challenge we’ve faced in the market research industry for years. 

The industry’s supply concerns are existential challenges. Without properly motivated and engaged people (registration required) sharing about their experiences in our studies, we cannot deliver the insights brands need to make vital decisions. Here, I will examine what to do about it, but first, we must understand what’s driving the supply shortage. 

Understanding the research participant shortage

Much like quiet quitting, the research participant shortage is partially the result of today’s economic environment, but it is also linked to three dovetailing industry trends:

  • Post-pandemic changes have tipped the scales and consumers, with newly found power, have expectations for the value of their time and data.
  • Fewer suppliers of quality audiences. 
  • Consumer participation is overall lower.

By taking a deeper look at these forces, we can better navigate a path forward. 

Increased and specific demand 

No one could have predicted how vastly and rapidly consumer behavior would evolve since 2020. Accordingly, demand for quality research participants has never been higher. Across all consumer-facing sectors, brands and the agencies and consultants that serve them seek quantitative primary research to better understand consumers and gain a market advantage. 

Survey respondents are in high demand and those demands are often for more than a simple general population sample. Research is often targeted to very particular consumer segments, such as “Midwestern moms of newborns and toddlers,” “frequent craft beer drinkers” or “business owners,” which are smaller populations that are harder to source. 

When the research requires additional dimensions, such as the ability to analyze patterns by specific racial or ethnic groups, or the need to conduct qualitative studies, the challenge of finding a sufficient quality sample is compounded. 

Constrained sources of supply

Building an audience seemed like easy money at the dawn of the smartphone era and attracted multiple new entrants to the industry, but then the realities of maintaining these businesses for the long haul set in. It is an expensive proposition to build and maintain a quality pool of participants who are engaged and motivated to share about their consumer experiences. 

Over the past five years, large exchanges acquired independent suppliers, and this consolidation left buyers with fewer options for sourcing audiences. This contraction in the supplier market was accompanied by lower consumer compensation and lower prices in what has been described by some observers as a “race to the bottom.” 

Having conditioned research clients to low-cost audiences and being unable to make the investments required to build and keep quality audiences engaged, the industry is in a bind.

The challenge is further exacerbated by fraudsters who view participation in paid research studies at scale as easy money. A decade ago, removing 10-15% of “bad” responses from a survey data set was the norm. Today in the industry, it’s now commonplace to accept tossing more than 25% of respondents after completion. 

Reduced consumer participation

Across the industry, companies that source consumers to respond to surveys are seeing drops in the rate of consumer participation. This trend stems from multiple factors, including concerns about privacy and value exchange, heavy competition for consumer engagement and other economic considerations. 

It is clear to anyone in the market research, marketing or advertising worlds that recent years have brought a sea change in consumer understanding and perspectives on privacy, particularly in the digital realm. With this change has come a growing demand by consumers to exert some control over their personal data and a recognition that sharing this information should bring a significant reward. 

During the deep pandemic period of 2020-2021, many homebound consumers were lured to participate in market research, likely as much for the distraction as for any economic rewards. As people returned to work and public life, the novel attraction of participating in research studies waned for some. For others facing economic uncertainty and inflationary pressure, the value they put on their time may have exceeded the compensation offered by many research companies. 

Navigating the new reality 

The combination of increased demand and reduced supply, in terms of both consumer participants and B2B suppliers, creates scarcity that impacts the entire market research ecosystem. 

In this new reality, brands and research agencies committed to providing great results to stakeholders must balance demands for more/better/faster with the need to stretch budgets to provide cost-effective solutions. 

How does that work in the current climate where finding quality audiences for research is increasingly difficult? While there is no magic bullet to solve this market research industry conundrum, here are five suggestions (and several questions you must ask yourself) to keep your business healthy and moving forward:

  • Evaluate your current audience sources to determine two key performance measures – net delivery tied to net quality. Not what you’re told you will get for a project, but what you get after replacing the fraud and garbage data along the way. Who are your most consistent performers, with the fewest quality issues and most reliable delivery?
  • Build stronger ongoing relationships directly with suppliers that perform in a way that provides the best support for you and your projects. Are you working with your best partners to plan ahead of industry-wide shrinking supply and increasing demand? How will you lock in the support you need?
  • Look at your expected volume growth and what you’ll need in the coming year. Where are the projected gaps and holes which will affect your growth this quarter and next year? How will that affect your clients and/or stakeholders?
  • Evaluate your budgets. That adage of “you get what you pay for” has never been truer. Is what you’re paying for audience access delivering what you need now? Will it be enough, so you get priority from your preferred suppliers?
  • Have frank discussions now with your clients and/or stakeholders about market realities and dynamics. Explain to them what the current landscape may mean for near-and later-term delivery, and what should be expected for reasonable costs. Are you setting expectations for what may affect your performance and how? And what you can do if or when potential problems become real delivery issues?
  • Once you navigate these challenges, ensure the studies you build are motivating your participants. Are you fairly compensating your respondents and making the experience easy and engaging?

None of the issues shared in this article are going away – conversely, they’re becoming more prevalent. It’s up to us to respond. Only then can we turn quiet quitters into enthusiastic participants.