You Can Learn A Lot in the Margins

The way that we live our lives is constantly changing as a result of advancements in technology.

In some cases, the changes have been subtle. In others, the changes have been far more dramatic. Either way, it is hard to question that most of this change is for the better.

However, sometimes there is a tradeoff that is taking place that you might not even be aware of.

To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at the way that businesses administer questionnaires to respondents when they are looking to find out what their customers and potential customers think about their products or services.

In my career, I’ve been involved in survey research studies where the questionnaires were administered via the telephone, the U.S. mail, online, and face-to-face. However, most my research experience involved two of these methodologies: U.S. mail and online. (Note: I worked in survey research when online surveys were still in their nascent stage.)

There are pros and cons for all of the survey research methodologies. With that said, many businesses have moved to online surveys as a way to collect data, because they are faster and cheaper to administer.

However, I’d still recommend mail surveys (or telephone surveys) over online surveys in some instances, because of two of the drawbacks to online survey research.

The first is the most obvious—not all people use the Internet. Therefore, if you survey customers or potential customers online, the data is only going to be based on those consumers who use the Internet. As I pointed out in my last blog post, this is going to exclude about one in five American adults. And, if your product or service is targeted to older, less educated, and less affluent consumers, the problem only gets worse.

The second issue with online surveys is that there is less flexibility for respondents to offer input as to why they answered the way that they did, unless there is a follow-up question that specifically asks them. That is, when a survey is administered via a paper questionnaire, they have the ability to clarify their answers in the margins.

While this seems like a very minor drawback, there have been many cases where this input has led to some key insights that we could give to the client. Or, in some cases, it made it impossible to report the data to the client without some clarification, if the data was reported at all. Without this input, the client might have gotten the wrong impression as to what was actually going on in the marketplace.

Keep in mind, I am aware that the benefits of online surveys often outweigh the drawbacks.

The point of this post is to highlight the fact that with each advancement in technology, there are some tradeoffs. And, as people enter into the business without ever experiencing the old processes, they might not even think about these particular issues at all.

It should be noted that this is not limited survey research. In fact, I’m guessing that this is occurring in all areas of our lives, to a varying degree.

They key is to try to identify the pros and cons of each particular option, in advance, and make a decision as to whether the tradeoffs are acceptable.

Photo credit: ReillyButler on Flickr.

Chad Thiele

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: