Web Based Surveys, a Primer
The Internet is just beginning to show that it offers a vast resource for research. However, it is important to realize that participants contacted over the Internet are ‘of a different breed’. This is a fact that must not be ignored when preparing a research plan that involves the Internet. All too often, researchers and clients fail to either recognize or admit that the typical Internet research respondent has salient differences that must be taken into account when setting objectives, designing the study and instrument and, most importantly, when interpreting the results and drawing conclusions.
Studies suggest that the Internet user has the following characteristics.
Internet data collection best resembles…
Generally speaking, data collection on the Internet falls in the same category as mail data collection via disk-by-mail (DBM), with both methodologies having differences and similarities. Several advantages include…
Cost: Directly comparing methodologies, the Internet is 50% less expensive than telephone data collection and 20% less than DBM.
Turnaround Time: The normal data collection window is reduced dramatically. Where a study may have taken 4-6 weeks to field with a DBM survey and 2-3 weeks using only the telephone, it may require only 2-3 days to collect the data using the Net. Both methods are faster than mail hardcopy due to time saved through real time data entry.
Sample: Lists of potential participants are procured in a similar manner, as e-mail addresses are increasingly available for particular segments.
Graphical Illustrations: As with mail hardcopy or DBM, since the instrument is visually communicated, graphics, 3D, pictures, etc. can be incorporated, which provides many options. This visual stimulus can also provide the research the opportunity to educate participants in a way not possible on the telephone.
Other multimedia: An abundance of room for creativity will eventually exist with increased ability to use sound, animation and video. However, there is caution to too much multimedia and graphics since the participation’s connection speed affects the display speed and this can influence response rate.
Most researchers who offer Web-based fielding will say, "Almost any study can be fielded using the Internet." Of course, common sense leaves us skeptical. Let’s be honest: currently, some can but most cannot. For which ones, then, CAN the Internet be used for primary research?
Generally, a researcher must ask at least three questions before selecting the Internet for data collection.
The limited nature of Internet research along these lines has been revived somewhat with a sampling concept called “sifting.” Sifting is used when a universe of potential respondents can be “over-sampled.” Sifting is the process of including only the participants from the sample who accurately represent the population you are attempting to have represented. For example, if a researcher wanted to ask questions of females between the ages of 30-45 who owned a PC, an “invitation banner” can be placed on an Internet search engine in the PC category. Everyone who “hits” the invitation and completes the questionnaire would then be sent through a sifting process that would exclude everyone that did not fit the profile.
In some cases, however, the target market has a large enough Internet user base that ‘sifting’ is not required. The best example is users of Internet yellow pages.
Most often, Web surveys for research purposes remain those based on a targeted audience that has been offered the opportunity to participate. One invitational vehicle for participation is by e-mail alert. Here, the targeted respondents receive an e-mail notice requesting their participation, their unique password for access to the survey page and the link (URL) to that page. The data collection software monitors the password and ensures that each participant provides only one response.
If the material is confidential, the Internet should not be used because the distribution of material cannot be controlled. Another alternative, such as a central location interviewing methodology, is best suited for this study.
In the future, it is expected that many ‘confidentiality’ roadblocks will be alleviated to some extent, such as restricting the ability to save or print a page from the Internet. As with any research method, however, complete confidentiality of research material will never be possible.
Thus, unless the site can offer full-security capabilities, and this can be “trusted” by the respondent, Web surveys should remain in the non-sensitive data collection arena.
Features that should be available to ensure response "quality."
This analyst has access to various statistical and survey design tools that facilitate conducting very powerful and secure Web and E-mail based surveys. These include SPSS from SPSS, Inc. and Survey System from Creative Research.
In addition to surveys, the user can have access to real-time data tabulations. For examples, link to Survey System's page.
Also, please check out the Top-10 Web Survey Issues and How to Address Them by Scott Spain
Revised: February 2002
Information contained in this Primer has been obtained from a variety of sources to include the author’s experience. One effective source is InfoTek Research Group, Inc. that maintains Web statistics. Features noted above are available in Creative Research's Survey System, Web Module, used by this analyst.