With more choices and easier access, the menu of options for consumers is massive. As a result, smart market research is critical to reaching (and understanding!) these more sophisticated palates.

The challenge? The need for customer insight has exploded over the last 15 years, forcing the consumer research industry to cook up creative solutions. But business-to-business (B2B) research is feeling the heat (and lagging behind) as it’s held onto traditional methods of collecting feedback. As the speed of innovation continues to increase, lengthy surveys, endless timelines and massive budgets are becoming relics of the past. In other words, it’s time for a new recipe.

1) New Flavors: Ditch Old School Surveys

Industry experts have known for years that long, traditional market research surveys are a dying breed. While slow cooking might add flavor in the kitchen, it only fuels frustration in surveys. Why? Because attention spans have shrunk (thanks, smartphones) and because survey fatigue is rampant.

Humans today have shorter attention spans than a goldfish, according to a new study from Microsoft.1

The Pew Research Center reports that survey response rates fell from 36 percent in 1996 to 9 percent in 2012. And they’re not expected to bounce back any time soon. A few years ago, SurveyMonkey analyzed more than 100,000 surveys and found that lengthy surveys are more susceptible to respondent “satisficing” (taking the fastest route through a survey just to get it done and receive the incentive).2 The result? Bland data.

Survey abandon rates increase for surveys that take more than 7-8 minutes to complete, according to a study from SurveyMonkey.2

The point? Most customers today won’t spend 20 minutes filling out a survey. And those who do take the time to fill out long surveys are different than your typical customer. They likely won’t represent the people you are actually trying to reach with your product or service.

If you search “ideal length for an online survey,” you’ll probably come up with a standard range of 15–20 minutes. But when we asked the panelists on our “Voice of IT” panel, they said their ideal survey length is only five minutes. Any longer and they tend to glaze over or drop out. Survey taste buds start to go numb after the five-minute mark, and results thus become unreliable.

Here’s what two of our IT pro panelists had to say about survey length:

“How can surveys be better? Limit the number of questions. Too many and the ‘give a crap’ factor goes right down the tubes.” ~Spiceworks panelist

“Brevity is important — I don’t have a lot of time to devote to surveys.” ~Spiceworks panelist

Less is more when you’re surveying a B2B audience. Too much seasoning . . . ruins the dish. If your market research recipe still calls for lengthy, overly-detailed surveys, you run the risk of receiving unhelpful responses at best (and zero responses at worst).

The dilemma: How to shorten surveys when you need tons of data on your market, products or services. Besides whipping up more concise questions, you can also use alternative data sources or tap into research communities (a topic we’ll delve into in just a bit).

2) Respect: Consider Participant Palates

At our organization, our global community of real IT buyers gives it to us straight (if your dish is bland, it helps to know!). We listen because these aren’t just “respondents”; they’re people. In fact, 86 percent of our Voice of IT panelists told us in a recent survey that they only participate in our research, and we believe it’s because we treat them like humans, not numbers!

Our community has helped us conduct market research in a way that gets healthier results. So prepare to take your research to master chef level, because we’re about to let you in on the juicy secrets our IT panelists have shared with us.

Secret Ingredient #1: Respect their time and keep surveys short.

Busy IT managers? They’re not sitting around all day with nothing better to do than spend 20 minutes taking a survey for points they can eventually cash in for a coffee mug.

No surprise: Our IT pros told us they don’t want to spend a long time filling out surveys. So we keep them short, sweet and to the point. They’re able to relish every question, and we then get data we can trust – win/win!

Secret Ingredient #2: Talk straight.

Cut the jargon. Trim the fat. Don’t make your audience break out their dictionaries.

In B2B – and especially in tech – people have a tendency to over-engineer survey questions. Too many flavors leaves respondents scratching their heads, trying to make sense of what they’re being asked. This complexity does not result in great feedback data.

Ask questions as if respondents were standing right in front of you. Strive for clear and precise language to make your questions easier to answer.

Secret Ingredient #3: Deliver a five-star experience.

One more strategy to getting great results from your survey: make it a pleasant experience.

Sure . . . but how? There are tons of ways, like gamifying your surveys or including rich interactive elements for better engagement. One major element many businesses skip over is optimizing the survey for mobile. IT pros are on-the-go all day long. They’re more likely to fill out your survey if they can do it easily from their smartphone (and not have to pinch the screen to read your questions). In fact, about 30 percent of all online surveys are now taken using a mobile device and that percentage is expected to increase quickly.3

When you find more engaging ways to interact with your respondents, they’ll give you higher-quality responses –which result in more valuable insights for your business.

Remember that you’re gathering feedback from people. Ask yourself: Would you take this survey?”

3) Quality: Taste Test Research Services

You think you’re getting feedback from a CIO, but it turns out that it’s Mike, the Pizza Guy, who lied to get into your survey for the incentive.

You discover one respondent has completed your survey 37 times to take advantage of the “tell a friend” recruitment carrot.

Think this doesn’t happen very often? You’d be surprised. There’s a whole population of “professional respondents” out there who have figured out creative ways to goose their incentives. It’s no secret that the quality of some online panels is. . .more than a bit spoiled.

To get real insights from real people in your target demographic, you need to be vigilant.

You take the time to create surveys that’ll get you the insights you need to move your company forward. But do you really know who you’re sending those surveys to? Falsified, low-quality panelists (artificial flavors) are a real problem for companies seeking market insights. We all know it. But there are things you can do about it.

  1. Pick your partners carefully. Find a market research supplier with a reputation for quality and a foolproof method for qualifying respondents.
  2. Scrutinize the data you’re getting. Watch for inconsistent responses. Monitor whether data quality is going down over time. Be mindful of strange patterns emerging. Don’t get complacent. Keep your eyes open.
  3. Explore new data sources for insights. Social media, Big Data analytics, online communities (MROCs) and boutique panels are good examples.

The heat is rising in the kitchen, but there’s no need to flee! Know where your respondents are coming from and understand how they’re being qualified. What are your research providers doing to ensure that your survey respondents are legitimate, qualified, unbiased and 100 percent all natural?

4) Big Data: Turn It Into Big Insights

Big Data is a big buzzword; incredibly powerful . . . and just as often misunderstood.

IBM reports that 90 percent of the data in the world today has been created over the last two years alone.4 This data – both structured and unstructured – comes from everywhere: social media, sensors, email, video, photos, financial transactions and GPS signals to name a few. This mass of data is what we now call Big Data and it makes up the protein of every good market research diet.

That said, its sheer size is overwhelming for businesses (and for researchers who are trying to make the most of it). Data scientists are arguably the best at working with this data, but their focus is on transforming data into understandable formats (bite-size chunks). They’re not necessarily focused on translating that data into marketing objectives and research hypotheses.

“Too many companies are stuck in the ‘expert’ phase. They have a handful of highly skilled analytics professionals but have not begun to train everyone else to make use of their analytics methodology.”5

And that’s where you have the opportunity to take your market research results from merely good to gourmet.

Data scientists + researchers turn big scary data . . . into insight.

You need both ingredients: data and research. If you’re only making business decisions based on a survey, or you’re only analyzing Big Data, it’s possible that you’re limiting your flavor profile and what’s really happening in the broader market. Researchers need to stop arguing about which is better – Big Data or survey data – and instead start making the case to clients that combining survey data with other “big” data can (and should!) be used to drive new and better insights.

The task: come to the table together and collaborate. The researcher must learn enough from the data scientist to interpret results and drive conversations. In turn, the researcher needs to be the bridge between the data sources.

Research agencies that operate as interpreters help you get to the right data for your specific needs. Brands today can no longer afford to silo their research and data; they need to blend these insights or find providers who will do it for them. A researcher who has access to (and can interpret the bite-size chunks) of big data can identify areas where additional insight is needed, be it from surveys, focus groups or from more data!

Traditional analytics have their place; Big Data is growing in importance. But when paired together – like the right wine with the right dish – they’re a powerhouse of market insight.

5) Speed and Perfection: A Well-Balanced Meal

Business leaders are increasingly wielding the chef’s knife and making critical decisions without the customer insight to back those decisions up. Why? Because the market research is taking too long.

“. . . Companies in the top third of their industry in the use of data-driven decision making were, on average, 5 percent more productive and 6 percent more profitable than their competitors.”6

Leaders have to make decisions now. But quality research takes time, right?

Not necessarily.

Sometimes, you have to make the difficult decision about whether you need absolute methodical precision or whether you need to get to the right audience quickly to gather a few insights. If you’re stuck in perfectionist mode, you may end up fine-tuning your dish until your buyers decide to dine elsewhere. Consider this quote from Seth Godin:

It’s that little voice in the back of your head, the “but” or the “what if” that speaks up at the crucial moment and defeats the joy and insight you brought to the project in the first place. It’s the lizard [brain] that ruins your career, stunts your projects, and hinders your organization.7

Decide if you need to be a slow-cooker (delicious, but what’s the sacrifice?) or instead hit up the research drive-through. While there are certainly scenarios in which you need to work through the three to four month research timeline, there are also ways you can get useful data much faster.

In addition to streamlining your survey design (which can rapidly accelerate your timeline), keep in mind that there are other sources of insight beyond surveys. Social media and Big Data analysis are two sources to consider. This kind of information is always on and constantly being gathered. They might not answer all your questions, but they can probably answer enough to help inform your next move.

Even better, use that data stream to answer as many questions as possible, then conduct a brief survey to fill in the gaps. A simple example: instead of asking survey respondents about their technology usage, our clients use our data to see what IT pros are using. This leaves fewer questions to ask when they send out surveys. Or, instead of running a survey to get product feedback, we analyze social conversations and product reviews to get some quick insights . . . in a day.

This doesn’t mean you should take shortcuts (substitute margarine for butter) when putting together a research program. Still follow best practices to ensure that the data you gather is certified fresh. But using other methods of gathering data can help you speed up the process.

This speed and always-on access are two of the many advantages of a vertical social network. They’re ready-made research communities . . . and they’re changing the way businesses gather insights. These communities have a collection of professionals eager to help with research and their members are already profiled and qualified. One result is higher response rates and more reliable data. Another is significantly reduced time required to find respondents, qualify them, invite them, wait for their responses and then review the data.

Communities give you access to people. And they’ve made insights more accessible, more trustworthy and faster. They’re your research brain food, all in one place.

6) Creativity: Break the Mold

Still conducting market research the old-fashioned way? It’s time to modernize your kitchen.

Why? Because you have more options today than ever before. Thanks to technology and a more interconnected customer-base, you’ve got a cabinet full of data sources.

Ditch the status quo. Abandon the old, tired way of doing things. Create a meal that satisfies your business needs. How? Drive innovation with innovative research methods.

Consider this your call to arms. Help us change the research industry and how we gather insights! Mix our six research ingredients together for heart-healthy, quality data.