Lightspeed Battles Consumers' Research Fatigue

WPP Company Offers Incentives to Respondents, Integrates Mobile Phones

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NEW YORK ( -- Wondering how to pry usable responses out of over-surveyed consumers? One research company thinks the answer may lie in incentives such as free DVDs and iTunes downloads as well as using cellphones to administer questionnaires.

Lightspeed Research, WPP Group's provider of online market research, is one of many companies grappling with a serious problem: the growing number of consumers who flat-out refuse to participate in market researchers' polling.

All types of surveys
While online market research is a booming sector within all of market research -- Lightspeed, for instance, posted a 50% organic-growth rate for the third quarter in the U.S. and the U.K. -- opinion fatigue is afflicting respondents to all types of surveys, whether they're conducted face-to-face, via mail, on the telephone or online.

Lightspeed CEO Anne Hedde calls it a "real issue," and her firm is taking action by testing out numerous schemes that may help engage and retain consumers who answer market-research questions truthfully.

"Respondents are the lifeblood of our industry," Ms. Hedde said. "If you can provide care and feeding, you get better data, better information and [clients] who will come back," she said. Founded in 1999, Lightspeed Research creates and manages consumer panels that generate research data for marketers and other clients.

'E-mail is for old folks'
Lightspeed's strategies to strengthen relations with its respondents vary, depending on the demographic being surveyed. Trying to reach the elusive 16- to 24-year-old youth market, Lightspeed this weekend is launching its first mobile-phone panel in the U.K. "To this group, e-mail is for old folks," said Ms. Hedde. "They're constantly on cellphones, texting and IM-ing."

The company is testing response rates to mobile-phone surveys in France and Germany as well, but Ms. Hedde emphasizes there's "quite a bit of analysis as well as client discussion and investigation ahead before we can celebrate success."

Lightspeed first implemented its incentive structure three years ago. When respondents complete a survey, the company awards them points that can then be redeemed for prizes such as gift certificates, DVDs and pet supplies (Lightspeed recently upgraded the prizes to include hot-ticket items such as iTunes downloads and cellphone ringtones). All respondents are automatically entered into a four-times-a-year sweepstakes that awards one respondent $5,000 in cash.

The downside
The incentives do have a downside: They can attract people who will rush through the questions just to pick up points and be eligible for the $5,000 prize. But Lightspeed tests panel outcomes to weed out questionable data -- patterned answers, for instance, that suggest a respondent wasn't paying much attention to what was being asked.

Surprisingly, perhaps, money and gifts aren't always the most sought-after incentives. "The best respondents you'll find are people who like giving their opinion," said Ms. Hedde. To them, the payoff is knowing that they've made an impact on new products or advertising. "As silly as that may sound, that's a big hook for some people," she said.

The company is also fielding small polls on quirky or topical subjects and disseminating responses to its panelists. When news of a terror plot at Heathrow Airport broke, Lightspeed polled panelists, asking them whether the scare would affect their future travel plans. Less than an hour later, the company had a snapshot of opinion from panelists in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific. "It offers panelists a chance to see how their opinions compare with those of others," Ms. Hedde said.

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