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

What is stopping you changing a survey from face-to-face to online?

I heard someone at a US conference in 2001 say that by 2010 there will be no more paper surveys; all surveys will be online. Predictions are dangerous, and the speaker was wrong, of course. It is true to say that most surveys now take place online, although in some countries, particularly in Asia Pacific where we have a big customer base, it’s still less than half. You have to factor in the fact that there has been significant growth in the number of short customer experience feedback surveys, which consequently inflates the percentage. Nonetheless, online will keep increasing as it’s cheaper, faster and, importantly, is starting to offer better deliverables.

Is the move to online just cost-driven?

It would be hard to argue against the fact that online surveys are generally cheaper than both CATI (telephone surveys) and face-to-face surveys. When the price differentials are 2 to 2.5 times for face-to-face surveys and 1.5 times higher for CATI, it becomes a compelling reason to go online. It does, though, beg the question ‘why aren’t all surveys online?’

Face-to-face has its place

Online surveys clearly have some disadvantages. For example, data quality can be lower unless stringent safeguards are in place – ESOMAR’s guidelines are a good starting point for those thinking of moving online. Added to this are issues like the length of the survey that you can conduct, respondent cheating, the benefits of having an interviewer present to explain more difficult questions and so on. While some of these issues may have been problems in the early days of online research, professional research companies have learnt how to mitigate these pitfalls.

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The Big Five reasons why online surveys are better than face-to-face surveys

I think it is easy to overlook some of the main advantages of online research. Some are obvious and already well-documented; some are given insufficient acknowledgement, in my view. What are the Big Five?

  1. Cost
  2. Speed
  3. Respondent access and convenience
  4. Ease of deployment
  5. Potential data value increases – arguably the most important

Let’s take a look at each…


OK, so this is obvious. Buyers of research are going to be attracted to a significantly lower price. There’s no point fighting economic realities unless there is a good reason, such as a particular type of research only working face to face – for example, a product test or a necessarily long detailed survey where an interviewer is essential. Unless a cheaper product is inferior, buyers are going to buy on price in most cases.


Speed is highly important, partly for obvious reasons and partly for less apparent reasons. There is little doubt that businesses like to be in a position to respond quickly to the results of a market research study, so speed matters. The other reason, though, is that expectations have changed over time. The likes of Uber, Amazon, Google have changed expectations. I found it both sad and hilarious when I heard a speaker explain that consumers expect immediacy and have high expectations. Conversely, the speaker opined that research quality was essential and speed was not such a big deal. Sorry, but quality and speed are both necessary. Maybe, it never occurred to the speaker that buyers of research are also consumers. Expectations are expectations.

Respondent access and convenience

Online surveys are a chance to ‘meet’ customers at their convenience, when and where they want. Being online opens up greater possibilities, such as providing feedback to respondents. I am always more likely to answer a research-industry online survey when I offered free feedback from the survey. Online surveys also provide immediacy. It is easy to add a question, change a question or, in a nutshell, to be agile. And what do clients expect? Let’s not go back to the consumer expectation story.

Easier to manage survey

There are some significant benefits in most online software systems when it comes to managing your online survey. There are several benefits, but three key advantages are as follows:

Easier to make changes/deploy

Online questionnaires are easy to change, whether this is due to client needs or because of errors. Making a change and re-deploying takes minutes rather than facing the cost and logistics of making amendments to a face-to-face project that is already in the field. CAPI systems that allow downloadable updates when there is an internet connection can reduce these problems. Still, an online survey can have updates in place quickly and smoothly with minimal disruption.

Fewer geographical issues

Online surveys mean that in most countries, you can reach the audience you are seeking wherever they live or work. Lack of internet access is, of course, a problem in some countries and it would be wrong to ignore this. However, if you look down Wikipedia’s 2020 list of countries where internet access is under, say, 40%, you find Marshall Islands, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, British Virgin Islands, Saint Helena, and Guyana. Now, one should not ignore these markets; indeed, Pakistan has a large population, but you come to countries where research is relatively small in most cases.

Worldwide surveys/local languages less problematic

In addition to local geographical issues, online surveys are easy to deploy across many countries, or even worldwide, and you can make use of multiple languages in many software platforms. These are real advantages that don’t just mean you can offer clients more; it means you can offer more at a highly competitive cost.

Potential data value increases

This is the last point and, arguably, the most important. Online data is best-placed to leverage maximum value to research buyers. If survey data is collected online, it is substantially easier to deliver results in real-time. It is considerably easier to provide data alongside other business data. Surely, all research data should be available to clients in online dashboards with other relevant business data, such as sales, KPIs, targets, sales enquiries etc. viewable at the same time. This must be good for market research as puts research data closer to the heart of a business. Yet, delivering market research analysis and reports in Powerpoint is still the norm. PowerPoint has its place at times, but automated, rapid delivery with all relevant data in one place is a reasonable expectation from research buyers, I believe, in 2020.

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How to move surveys online

The focus of this blog article is not, as you will have gathered, about the actual online survey instruments or the things that are important when designing an online questionnaire. This blog article is about maximising the potential of online and, in a COVID-damaged world, online offers a real opportunity. However, before ending, here are some critical considerations, which we have covered in previous blog articles.

a. Choosing the right level of software

There are two types of software – software that uses scripting and software, which you access through a graphical user interface. Scripting software usually means you can design more or less any questionnaire exactly as you want it. Does that matter? In almost all cases, it doesn’t. The important thing is to make the survey easy to understand, engaging and as enjoyable as possible to complete. This does not need a powerful scripting language. Scripting languages are usually best for large teams with high volumes working in a production-oriented operation. Here are some blog articles that might help you to decide what level of software you need.

– From Google Forms to Confirmit – 5 questions you need to consider before choosing online survey software

– What features do you need for online surveys?

– 10 essential things when choosing online survey software

b. Producing good online questionnaires

Producing an easy to understand, engaging questionnaire that is as enjoyable as possible to complete is a skill that you need to learn. Questions need to be clear and not too long. Rating scales need to presented in an engaging format rather than as large matrices. There are many more disciplines to consider. We have provided some sound advice in these articles.

– How to keep an online survey respondent engaged

c. Transferring surveys between software platforms

If you are moving a survey from Word to an online platform and you have several tracking studies, you may need to consider how easy it is to copy and paste the texts from Microsoft Word, for example, into the online platform. If you are moving from CATI to online, you would be wise to consider using software that is Triple-S compliant. We covered this topic some time ago, but it still needs consideration.

– 5 reasons why your market research software should be Triple-S compliant

How MRDC can help

MRDC offers two impressive products for online surveys. Snap allows you to conduct paper, CAPI or online surveys with facilities to share data and results online. The CYS Platform enables you to prepare and manage research projects, manage data and produce high-quality dashboards at an affordable price. Contact us now for more information on either of these products.

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