Phil Hearn: Blogger, Writer & Founder of MRDC Software Ltd.

Moving surveys online for data collection and reporting

Online data collection has become the most common methodology for most market research surveys around the world. However, in some countries, for example, many countries in Asia Pacific, where we operate extensively, data collection online still represents less than 50% of all fieldwork. When it comes to online reporting of survey data, I am not aware of any industry data. My perception is that it would be under 10% of surveys if you exclude small customer feedback surveys of one to five questions, which are not the core business of many research agencies.

Change is needed

It is my view that almost all surveys should be conducted online and delivered online. It is what businesses expect; it is how everyone operates mostly, and for market research to try to work outside that framework risks its future. The question, therefore, is ‘how painful is it move data collection and reporting online?’ What do you need to consider? Hopefully, this blog article will answer most of those questions.

The quality of the research

The quality of research that a research agency delivers will be dependent on several factors which I will explore below. The one question that I am not going to address is the subject of differences between data from face-to-face interviews and online interviews. That’s not because it isn’t a highly important matter, but because I am not a researcher. There are plenty of others far more qualified to cover that topic, and there are plenty of resources online. I would recommend starting with ESOMAR’s information, including this downloadable document about sampling.

Moving old projects online

The reasons for collecting data and reporting data online are different. Collecting data online is almost always cheaper and faster. Delivering data online is more about expectation, convenience and usefulness. The part of the process that sits between collecting data and reporting data may or may not be online. The preference is to have the whole process online as it means there are fewer steps in the process. There are occasions where data cleaning, data analysis or statistical analysis, for example, need to be carried out by experts using desktop software. This doesn’t matter too much as it is invisible to the clients. So, let’s look at the two ends of the process – collection and delivery.

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Software decisions

Choosing the right software for data collection can be more complicated than it would appear. The range of products available range from free products to products that come with a price tag of over US$10000 – and, that increases as you conduct more interviews. Of course, there is a whole spectrum of products that cover all levels, but which is best for you? I discussed this fully a separate blog article but the key points are:

  • Free/cheaper products may not have enough features for all (or even most) commercial surveys
  • Free/cheaper products can become relatively expensive if you conduct larger volumes of surveys – in other words, the cost per interview doesn’t fall much if you carry out larger quantities of interviews
  • Mid-range software may not give you total freedom on the presentation of your questionnaire
  • High-end software may mean you are unable to compete with other agencies as it’s so expensive
  • High-end software may have far more features than you need
  • High-end software usually requires learning a scripting language, which increases training costs and the need for more skilled staff

Picking mid-range software might be the right decision unless you have low volumes or complex needs. It’s certainly something to explore thoroughly before committing.

Questionnaire issues

It is often not possible to convert your surveys from face-to-face to online. Respondents are far less likely to be willing to complete a 30-minute interview online with an interviewer to cajole the respondent through the process. Quitting an online survey takes one click, so it needs to be engaging, easy to understand and of a suitable length. Thought also needs to be given to ensuring that the questions work on all types of devices. For example, there is a limit to the amount of text that someone can view on a mobile phone. Making questionnaires as enjoyable as possible can make a significant difference to completion rates. Rating scales can be uninteresting to complete online, and respondents can be prone to answering with little thought. Using card sorts and sliders, for example, can make the experience more interactive and achieve more accurate data. A number of these detailed issues were discussed here.

Online dashboards/data visualisation

PowerPoint dates back to the 1990s. It has been an excellent servant to market research, but it is seldom the best way to deliver data nowadays. There is a need to try to move old projects from PowerPoint reporting to online dashboards. It is what buyers of research expect – it is how they explore most of their other non-research data. Furthermore, dashboards can show other business data alongside market research data – or, even, data from multiple surveys – more easily and conveniently than PowerPoint reports. Like online data collection software, online dashboards come in different types and price bands.

Types of online dashboard systems

The main differentiators are:

  • Has data collection and dashboard integrated vs. online dashboard system only
  • Has good data management tools vs. only allows one source of data
  • Is ‘market research friendly’ vs. not focused on market research
  • Has limited functionality vs. can build both simple or complex dashboards
  • Allows you to use your own infographics vs. no custom infographics
  • Highly expensive (often BI tools) vs. Priced for use on most projects

I would draw your attention to, arguably, the least ‘exciting’ of these choices – and, that is data management. Increasingly, I find this to be the most crucial feature. Good data management means that you can pool together data from different surveys, different sources (e.g. sales, targets, KPIs) and present them conveniently in one place to your audience. This elevates the power and utility of market research data. I would also suggest that you consider the ‘market research friendliness’. As I have said before in other blog articles, market research data is different from most other data. It contains relatively few records with lots of data fields that include rating scales, multiple response questions, filters and so on. Most other data contain a large number of records (often hundreds of thousands) with very few fields which contain simple data – single response answers and numerics. It would be best if you had software that can handle market research data well to deliver survey results online or in a dashboard. Finally, on this topic, I will address the sensitive subject of price. I find too many of the products in this market overpriced and not competitively priced so that you can put almost any survey into an online dashboard at a minimal cost. With our CYS Platform, we feel that we have changed this market.

Data availability

While moving old projects to a more modern system, it is essential to consider how portable the data is. More and more, clients will want access to the data, or parts of it, for further analysis or to import into their systems. Some software tries to lock you into its system. Good software, in my view, stores data so that you transfer it where you want with as little difficulty as possible. Further, software tools that allow some basic exploration, such as Resolve, can add greatly to what you can offer.

Mixed-mode surveys

Finally, it is also worth considering the feasibility of handling mixed-mode surveys. There may be times when you need to collect data from some respondents in ways other than online. True mixed-mode software allows surveys to be presented as paper questionnaires, for example, but, importantly, the data from the survey is stored as one file rather two or more separate files that need to be merged at a later date.

In summary

This article has explored some of the ways that you can move old projects into an online environment successfully. Our CYS Platform manages everything from online surveys, data management through to high-quality data visualisation with customisable infographics at a competitive price. Snap also has flexibility data collection methodologies and can deliver data online or at a desktop. If you want to find out more about how we can help, please contact

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