Reliability and Advantages of Online Surveys

Reliability and Advantages of Online Surveys

SURVEY MYTHS DEBUNKED - Online Surveys Are Not Reliable

Doubts over the reliability of online surveys have existed since this newest of all surveys techniques became so common. One complaint is that online surveys are not scientific because they are conducted over the Internet. Online surveys are also accused of being more biased than other surveys, the argument being that only highly opinionated people participate. There is also a belief by some that most people who fill in online surveys don’t tell the entire truth anyway.

So, are online surveys for real? Are they reliable? Do they give better or worse results than other types of surveys such as phone, email, or face-to-face interviews?

Why Online Surveys Are Not Much Different From Other Surveys

What’s obvious about online surveys is that they are a child of the Internet age. What may be less obvious, however, is that online surveys are not just a child of the Internet, but also a reflection of it, complete with all the advantages and disadvantages that come with the World Wide Web.

So, just like the Internet generally, the biggest advantage of online surveys is economics. No other type of survey technique is as cheap to conduct as an online survey. You don’t need an army of assistants with recording equipment, you do not suffer transport or phone or mailing costs, and you don’t even have to use paper. That’s a very big deal for businesses, especially small and medium size businesses that otherwise would not have the money to survey.

But – again just like the Internet generally – online surveys suffer from the problem of technological limitation. Not everyone has access to Internet, and not everyone who has access will actually take the time to respond to surveys. It’s also not much easier to get a proper sample of a population from just some email lists or website visits logs.

Online surveys are also constrained by the need to be brief – the typical computer screen take less questions per page than an A4 paper, and might need to compete with other things going on simultaneously.

But – and this is where the misunderstanding comes in – the problems with online surveys are just variations of the same problems that the other types of surveys have. For instance, not everyone has a post office box or telephone or even a home from which an offline survey can be conducted, and not everyone who does jumps at the opportunity of participating in a survey. Most people throw mailed questionnaires into the bin without a second look, and only few would welcome a marketing call at home whilst they are having dinner. Similarly, getting people to spare twenty minutes for a face-to-face interview is pretty serious business. Plus, it’s not easy either to get a proper sample of a population from a phone or post office directory.

So What’s Up With This Big Deal About Online Surveys?

The comments about online surveys being less reliable are in fact misunderstandings of one key point: online surveys only reach one certain category of a population or market segment. This is the segment of the market that is mostly urban, educated, and routinely uses the Internet for work or leisure. It includes such segments as students and professionals in whatever kind of field. For anyone seeking to reach this group, online surveys are not just an option, but are by far the most effective survey method.

And it is not just because this group has great access to Internet. It is also because online surveys better match their lifestyle and their attitude. For instance, online surveys can be answered at job breaks or at night when students and professionals will usually be surfing the web anyway. For most businesses, this market is a critical segment. And as the number of people with access to Internet continues to grow, so too will the importance of online surveys.

But wait, there’s more. Other advantages of online surveys include:

  • Online surveys save on time: they take less time to conduct. A lot of the time-consuming steps like designing and creating and sending and processing and analyzing have been made a lot simpler or even largely automated. They usually also take less time to fill in. This is because they can fill it in wherever they want, whenever they want. Plus, they just have to visit your survey, and that’s all there is to it. So it’s a win-win, basically.
  • Online surveys offer flexibility: as mentioned, they allow a flexibility in answering that no other survey type can match. A respondent can fill in the survey whenever it best fits him/her, which will increase your response rate.
  • Online survey gives access to special market segments: they are better at reaching people who share specific interests but are geographically scattered – like people with a passionate love for potatoes or people with three brown one-month-old puppies.
  • Online surveys encourage honesty: while probably all types of survey suffer from a dishonest answer here and there, online surveys have the advantage of minimizing the incentive to lie. For example, people who have unpopular political, religious, or sexuality beliefs are more likely to be honest online than face-to-face. They feel like since it’s online it gives them more anonymity. Some people with pretty conventional views are also more honest online because they are not affected by the voice intonation or personality of the interviewer.

So Which Is the Better Survey Method?

The truth is that there is no single ‘best’ survey method. Rather, the best survey method to use depends on the aim of the survey and the targeted market or population segment. Business surveys, for example, as opposed to political opinion polls, are best done online – in part because they are usually aimed at (potential) buyers rather than the entire population. In contrast, opinion polls preferably want to gauge the entire society, and therefore need to go beyond the online community. The norm these days is to combine online surveys with other types of surveys.

Similarly, you might want to think twice before deploying an online survey on a mostly rural or elderly segment of the society.

Beyond that, all surveys of whatever kind are only as good as how they’ve been conducted. Whether online or by phone, mail, or face-to-face, a survey’s reliability comes down to how well the sampling was done, how professionally it was conducted, and how well the results are analyzed. Any method can be a roaring success, and any method can be a total failure.

Is there something about surveys that you think is confusing or often done wrong? Give us a shout in the comments and we will do our best to help clear it up!

Photo credit: Kevin Collins (thanks, Kevin)

Jonah Njonge
Jan 17, 2014
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