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6 ways technology can help you tackle sensitive survey questions

Members of the market research industry find themselves fighting tooth and nail for decent response rates and representative sample.

So when your study is about drug use, sexual behaviors, political and religious beliefs, or other sensitive topics, you’ll need to ensure that you’re doing everything possible to keep response rates steady.

Asking sensitive questions via surveys or interviews can be considered intrusive or offensive, regardless of what the respondent’s answer may be. And if the respondent feels that their response could be contrary to popular societal norms, they may be more inclined to provide a dishonest answer that conforms to their perception of normal (this is called ‘social desirability bias’). Compounding the issues of question intrusiveness and social desirability bias, respondents may not trust that their responses will remain anonymous, or that the data will be kept secure.

Sensitive questions can negatively affect three important survey measurements: overall response rates, single question decline rates, and response accuracy – due to a higher percentage of respondents who answer sensitive questions dishonestly. That means that the inclusion of sensitive questions in a survey needs to be handled in an intelligent and delicate way whenever possible. Fortunately, technology can help.

The chosen survey channel can compound the issues around sensitive questions. The selected channel can exponentially increase respondents’ hesitation to answering sensitive questions:

  1. Self-completion surveys (e.g. Voxco Online): in which respondents complete surveys on their own time and in privacy;
  2. Telephone interviews (e.g. Voxco CATI): in which survey call center interviewers ask respondents questions over the phone;
  3. Personal interviews (e.g. Voxco Mobile Offline): in which interviewers use mobile devices to ask respondents questions directly in a face-to-face setting.

In general, respondents are more likely to answer sensitive questions honestly via self-completion surveys. But there’s tremendous value in choosing personal interviews over self-completion surveys, or choosing a complimentary multichannel approach, so interviews should not be ruled out immediately.

Here are six ways to use technology to boost response rates and response accuracy on sensitive questions:

1. Channel selection

As we mentioned above, self-completion surveys that can be taken by respondents in privacy offer a better atmosphere of anonymity which helps respondents feel more comfortable answering sensitive questions. The elimination of an interviewer can also reduce the social desirability bias introduced by the presence of another person.

2. Multichannel studies

Your studies don’t need to stick to only one survey method. Using an integrated survey platform, you can target a single respondent database and follow sample across multiple channels. For example, after a phone interview is completed, invite a segment of the respondents to complete an online survey. The logic of the online survey can trigger follow-up questions based on their CATI responses and probe into more sensitive topics that respondents would be less likely to confide to an interviewer.

3. Live channel switching

Consider redirecting interviewees mid-interview to a self-completion channel to ask sensitive questions. This temporarily gives respondents the anonymity and privacy needed for sensitive topics. Redirect CATI respondents to an IVR system to answer a few sensitive questions using their phone keypad, then return them to the interviewer to finish the survey. Pass the CAPI tablet to respondents directly and let them enter their answers directly into the questionnaire without having to say the words aloud to an interviewer.

4. Live question wording changes

As your survey progresses, be sure to keep an eye on real-time response analytics. If you note significant drop off rates at a specific question, or higher-than-average item nonresponse rates on specific questions, take action! Alter question wording, and instantly push the updates live. Add in some language that emphasizes survey anonymity and data security when surveys start veering into sensitive territory. That’s the benefit of live survey updating.

5. Survey logic/flow changes

If early results show that respondents are being turned off by sensitive questions, you could also adjust the logic and flow of the survey. Move sensitive questions further into the survey to build more trust and rapport with respondents before they get to them. If you have a sensitive question earlier in the survey, trigger ease-in questions and language to show only for those respondents who chose ‘refuse’ on the first sensitive question. Or go the other way: build trust with those respondents who did answer the sensitive question by hiding demographic or identifying questions at the end of the survey that could make respondents feel that their responses will be connected back to them.

6. Data hosting

Sometimes it’s enough for respondents to know that the survey is anonymous. But other respondents could want assurances that their data is being stored with the highest possible security and encryption, or on internal servers versus stored “out there” in the cloud. So give them those assurances.

Use technology to maintain response rates!

In a period of declining response rates, it is likely that respondents will be even more reluctant to take part in surveys that tackle sensitive topics. And in an age of growing concerns over data security, those who do respond to your surveys could be less inclined to reveal potentially embarrassing information about themselves.

Even in self-administered surveys, respondents may still misreport or refuse answers on sensitive questions. But there are a number of ways to use survey technology to your advantage when asking the tough questions. Get in touch with the team at Voxco if you’d like to discuss more unique ways to use a flexible survey platform to collect sensitive respondent data.

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December Feature Updates

At the end of another calendar year, we’re continuing to crank out new features for Voxco Online. Think of it as a holiday gift for our clients – we’re answering their wishes for new features that boost their productivity. We couldn’t have planned it better. 😉

Here are December’s new features, which mostly aim to better support SSS XML v1.2 with triple-s exports. Get in touch with us if you’d like help with executing any of them:

  • Added ‘Dichotomize multiple’ options for TXT exports. Previously, the ‘dichotomize multiple’ option was only available for CSV, Excel and SPSS formats. Starting this month, you will have the option to also export as TXT files (not available for SAS, SCT, SPS, or QAX formats).
  • Export all columns. If your data has multi-response questions (e.g. checkbox questions) and numeric codes, you will now be able to to select ‘dichotomized multiple’ and a .SSS format to create a data file with dichotomized numeric codes.
  • Exporting loops in questionnaire order. Traditionally, the default order for exporting looped question lists followed a response-focused order (e.g. Q1_R1, Q1_R2, Q1_R3, Q2_R1, Q2_R2, Q2_R3, Q3_R1, etc.). Now you can export looped question lists in a question-focused order (e.g. Q1_R1, Q2_R1, Q3_R1, Q1_R2, Q2_R2, etc.). This will include the option to export in TXT (SSS, Triple-S XML), Excel and CSV formats.
  • Added filter option to exclude surveys where panelists are inactive. We’ve added a filtering property to the Web API for Panel Manager that allows the ability to exclude surveys for which the panelist respondent is inactive. Enabling this will only return results where the respondent status is active.
  • Delete results via API after exporting. If you integrate with our system through an API, you can now delete a survey export task from a third party system. This prevents export task lists from growing indefinitely on the third party system.
Updates rolling out now!

Our SaaS servers are getting this update as early as this week. If you’re a client who hosts Voxco Online on your own premises, get in touch with us to schedule an update that will include these new exporting options.

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Online surveys are not enough

Part 1: The oversaturation of online surveys.

Online will remain the #1 survey channel for the time-being, and deservedly so. The channel offers the ability for respondents to privately complete surveys on their own time. For researchers, data can be processed immediately, and there are no additional costs for interviewers.

But because of the simplicity and efficiency of online surveys, the market is quickly becoming oversaturated and respondents are getting overwhelmed. Online survey invitations are everywhere, and the surveys they link to are often sloppy. And the resulting online survey clutter leads to survey fatigue, which leads to a range of data collection issues, none of which are good news for researchers:

  • Declining response rates. Many online surveys see single-digit response rates as low as 2%. And respondents who do complete the surveys generally have an extreme opinion: they’re either ecstatic or livid. It’s difficult to get a balanced opinion when you’re only talking to outliers.
  • Reduced respondent attention span. For respondents who still complete surveys, the increased frequency can affect their in-survey attention span. The more survey questions they see, the higher their tendency to burn through questions too quickly without adequate thought.
  • Market saturation. With so many surveys vying for a respondent’s attention, how can one organization get their survey noticed and completed?

So are online surveys doomed? Of course not – but researchers tasked with deploying them are certainly being challenged. We’ve discussed numerous times in the past how to make online surveys more engaging. Here is the TL;DR version:

  • Design surveys well. A no-brainer, but so important. Keep online surveys short and sweet on the surface. Nowadays, if your survey looks cheap or takes longer than five minutes, you’ll start losing a portion of the respondents who were willing to click on the link in the first place.
  • Listen and Adapt. Surveys are a two-way conversation. Ensure that the respondent knows you’re listening to their answers. Use logic to skip irrelevant questions or pipe in past responses. If a respondent feels like they are being heard, they’re more likely to share.
  • Incentivize. Incentives increase response rates which offsets your sample cost. Unincentivized survey requests are a primary target in the rising pushback against online survey invitations.
  • Personalize the invitation. Ensure that survey invitations speak to the right people, and acknowledge the respondent situation. Use a clean sample source and personalize the message to clarify why they were chosen (eg. “Thanks for your purchase of X last Tuesday…”).
  • Create a community. Cut to the heart of your customer base and nurture your own panels of your loyal consumers. It’s a lot of work to create and manage, but an incentivized, permanent panel will give you a constant finger on the pulse of your most important customer segment.

Online surveys are an essential part of any Voice of Customer or research program. But in today’s industry reality, you need to accept that getting a respondent’s attention online is extremely challenging. Get your surveys noticed by complementing well-designed online surveys with surveys conducted via alternate channels.

Break through the heads-down, clutter-ignoring patterns of an average respondent’s daily routine. Think differently about how to get your survey noticed by respondents. Taking your survey project out of your own comfort zone can take you into a new zone where respondents actually notice your surveys.

We’ll expand more on this idea through this three-part blogpost series. Read Part 2 (Get surveys noticed in the offline world) now and Part 3 (The multi-channel advantage) will land in the coming weeks!