Surveys a Century From Now

Each day we’re counting down our Top 12 blog posts of 2014. Coming in at #10 is this essay originally published August 29.

TARDIS in the time vortex

In a post entitled “No more surveys in 16 years?” Ray Poynter writes:

Back in March 2010, I caused quite a stir with a prediction, at the UK’s MRS Conference, when I said that in 20 years we would not be conducting market research surveys. I followed my conference contribution with a more nuanced description of my prediction on my blog…

The first thing I did was clarify what I meant by market research surveys:

  • I was talking about questionnaires that lasted ten minutes or more.
  • I excluded large parts of social research; some parts of which I think will continue to use questionnaires.

I’m personally committed to proving Ray’s prediction wrong, as this screenshot of my calendar for March 4, 2030, demonstrates:

March 4 2013 appointment

Setting Ray’s sensationalism aside, his post goes on to confound usage of a research technique with revenue associated from that technique: he forecasts that survey revenue will decline, and therefore surveys will decline.

I would counter that lower and lower prices will drive greater and greater usage: you can survey 100 consumers for $500 or less from a range of vendors today, something that was unheard of a decade ago. And there are plenty of free survey systems, or free-for-limited-use systems, that lower the barriers to survey research even further, if you have a group to survey (and everyone on Facebook now has a group to survey and a way to reach them).

Everywhere I look I see people doing surveys who would never have done them in the past.

I’m sure there will be vibrant and healthy usage of survey research in 2030, in 2040, and a century from now in 2114. Research clients love them, and there are enough respondents who will take them, whether they love them or simply endure them or just want to be paid for them, to guarantee the method will survive.

My clients love survey research and are doing more of it than ever (much of it DIY without my help!). They’re comfortable with longer surveys, and uncomfortable still with microsurveys. (I’m trying to win them over to this technique.)

There will always be research topics best addressed by asking questions, and if the topic is engaging or important enough to the respondent, they will happily take the survey for 11 minutes or an hour and 11 minutes:

  • I have been thanked by IT managers, for instance, for conducting hour-long telephone and face-to-face surveys with them about emerging technologies, because the topic was important to them. Of course, they appreciated the incentives as well (in one case, a hand-delivered bottle of scotch).
  • I just fielded, over my own protests, a 100-question survey, with no incentive offered. The customers who took it were happy to – 1,000 of them care that much about the brand doing the research that they each spent a median time of 33 minutes taking this survey.

In a post this week, Annie Pettit reminds us that people take surveys for many reasons:

  1. 60% Incentives
  2. 53% Sharing opinions
  3. 36% Learning about products and services
  4. 27% They help pass the time
  5. 26% Tie between 1) Shaping new products and services, and 2) They’re fun

Members of my own panel also mention appreciating the mental challenge and the introspection required.

While other techniques may become more popular than surveys a century from now, and while online surveys in 2114 may be no more glamorous a technology than electricity is today, surveys will continue to grow, thrive, and even badger people for 11+ minutes a time for many years to come.

Jeffrey Henning, PRC, is president of Researchscape International, which provides “Do It For You” custom surveys at Do It Yourself prices.  He is a Director at Large on the Marketing Research Association’s Board of Directors. You can follow him on Twitter @jhenning.



  1. RayPoynter says:

    To some extent the 2030 numbers depend on definitions. What is a survey and what is “still around”. My feeling is that that by 2030 the 10 minute plus survey will be as common as postal is today.

    I use the $ value for surveys, because it is all we have available, but I also make the point that the cost of surveys has been falling (and will continue to fall) so that makes the picture more complex.

    A 100 years? Really? Think back 100 years, very few things from 1914 are still with us today in the same form. You make the quip on Twitter that buggy whips are still with us, but not as an everyday method of controlling mainstream transport.

    I think there is little merit in looking 100 years ahead, but lots of fun. I doubt that many people will be using a keyboard to enter information in 100 years. We might not have the current form of capitalism in 100 years. We might have much less land available in 100 years. We might all be ‘chipped’ in 100 years. Unless legislators protect people, my feeling is that in 100 years everything people (in the ‘free’ countries) say and do will be recorded by commercial operators, making for a massively reduced need to ask long series of questions. In 100 years the questions that need to be asked can probably be asked via bot/AI/voice and will home in on the information required (as opposed to the ask most people most questions approach we have at the moment), and we will be able to use analytics to estimate the answers to questions not asked (and this estimation will happen on the fly, in the moment).

  2. “As common as postal [surveys]” is a lot more common then your previous claim such surveys wouldn’t exist. There are still lots of postal surveys, typically here in the States using Address-Based Sampling as a more affordable attempt at a probability survey than RDD.

    Surveys are already over 100 years old, so assuming they exist for another 100 isn’t hard. A survey is almost as broad a category as vehicular transportation — a survey is just a structured dialogue (whether on paper, face-to-face, via telephone, via telephone robocalls, online, or – in the future – with androids or on-screen avatars). Debating how to structure that dialog dates back to at least 1888 with Gottlieb Schnapper-Arndt’s rules for questionnaires. Keyboards have a short history with surveys. Imagining surveys with automated interviewers that ask only the questions they need to isn’t the future — it’s the present, for any corporation that has integrated their IVR system with their CRM system. And it’s still a survey.

    Your “10 minute” claim is too arbitrary — it’s not a logical bifurcation of survey research. The emergence of microsurveys, 10 questions and under, might be a logical segmentation, but that doesn’t mean slightly longer surveys will disappear altogether.

    I can believe many things about surveys 100 years from now. Will 95% of them be 10 questions or less? Most likely. Will they primarily be automated? Most certainly. Will they cease to exist? Most unlikely.

    In a century, people will still need to get from place A to place B, and businesses will still want to get from market position A to market position B — and surveys will be an important tool for measuring their progress and charting their course.


  1. […] BTW, if you are interested in this topic you might want to read Jeffrey Henning’s riposte, Surveys A Century From Now. […]

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