It remains a fact of business life today: after the Great Recession, two and even three jobs were combined into one. This occurred just as Big Data (and small) was becoming part of everyone's job—whether or not they had any data experience.

This isn't about CRM data, which is a huge but totally separate issue. This is about the qualitative and quantitative data that's critical to every stage of product and campaign lifecycles. It's statistical science, the complexity and importance of which are frequently minimized in the rush to market.

It remains a fact of business life today: after the Great Recession, two and even three jobs were combined into one. This occurred just as Big Data (and small) was becoming part of everyone's job—whether or not they had any data experience.

This isn't about CRM data, which is a huge but totally separate issue. This is about the qualitative and quantitative data that's critical to every stage of product and campaign lifecycles. It's statistical science, the complexity and importance of which are frequently minimized in the rush to market.

Cheap DIY survey websites created by non-research developers have been used for years by managers in an effort to have some insights, instead of none. Sounds good, right? Not so much, when the likely (but often overlooked) result of this approach is:

Many B2B marketers and consumer product managers who lack requisite background are given the task of gathering data. That's ok: when you give smart people smart tools they can usually figure it out and get the job done properly.

What tends to go wrong with a blind spot in data chops isn't typically about the individual; it's about the tool they're using. Inaccurate data from poorly designed DIY surveys is a titanic problem in business, and it's largely undiagnosed

Thankfully this is going away, as the latest self-service market research tools are debuting. They're faster, cheaper, more accurate, and they actually help the user create valid surveys by automating intricate data science.

What's Wrong With My DIY Survey Tool?
This can be answered with a question: who built it? From the late 1990s to the mid 2000s as web browsers, servers, and bandwidth made big advances, entrepreneurs jumped in with DIY survey tools. Ironically, almost none of these players were market research firms. They were mostly Internet startups with IPO dreams. They took a database programming approach, a simplistic UI/UX, and did their thing.

What's wrong with that? If you need quality data, quite a bit.

While the old DIY tools have certainly improved, most of these companies didn't have any expertise in market research to begin with. They approached it as a database solution, not a data solution. Huge difference. Accordingly, the old guard DIY survey tools were never able to perform the kind of concept rotations, quota assignments, randomization of responses, questions, screens, or groups of questions & screens, and other complex processing required to collect quality data. No disrespect—the older tools helped a lot of people over the years to move things along and shed some light. They just didn't do it very well.

Here's an example:
You have two concepts that you want to measure (basic A/B testing); you want to present an ad concept as a simple graphic, then on the next screen ask Purchase Intent and Attribute Communication. So you have two concepts, two screens containing three questions for each concept. What you need to do is group the concept A screens together, and group the concept B screens together, then rotate/randomize which concept group is evaluated first and second.

To add one more level of complexity, let's say you want to balance customers and non-customers across each concept so you have a readable sample of each group for each concept.

With many older DIY survey tools, you're out of luck. It can't be done. In the more advanced tools you may have the basic randomization or grouping ability, but it is locked by an Upgrade button to the most expensive service levels, and still falls short of the control you need.

Moving forward without proper survey flow control leads to something called “position bias” which registers more favorable ratings on the first concept than the second. This fundamental flaw in the older tools can present across many different types of research design.

New self-service survey tools allow you to easily group concept questions and randomize or rotate how they're presented. First concept first for some people; second concept first for other people. It's how you avoid position bias. Database solutions don't correct for this, because they're generally not built on statistical science. New self-service tools give you this advanced control at the free service level because that is quality research.

Here you can see an example of this functionality in use:

Go With the Flow
It's hard to build a system that stops somebody from making mistakes. For example, no automated system can know in a sentient way the qualitative content of the questions you're writing for your survey. That's why newer survey tools have actual data scientists available to answer questions. This alone is a serious enhancement.

Another strength of newer tools is managing the flow of survey creation from the perspective of a market researcher. It avoids logic flaws that can also induce bias. Yes, the older tools can perform skip patterns and randomization. But they don't necessarily allow you to group questions or group screens together so you can really manage extremely complex rotations. That's a key difference between data and database.

If your eyes glaze over at the mere mention of randomization or rotation against target quota cells, don't beat yourself up. That happens to everyone except market researchers. Their eyes twinkle when someone says “complex research design.”

Which brings us back to the question of “who built it” as it relates to DIY surveys and outmoded tools. If you need one hundred people to view a concept in a certain way, and then that one hundred people needs to be balanced by gender, age, ethnicity, and other variables, you need a data solution—not a database tool.

The intelligence of professional market research systems developed over years has now been put into a usable form. New survey tools are capable of executing complex research design; balancing randomization and rotations for concepts across your sample; and performing core functions like branching and piping. It sounds like jargon, but it's actually an industry sea change: powerful research systems becoming available to non-professional users in free versions marks a vast improvement over older DIY systems simply upgrading technical capabilities.

Add to this responsive design that allows you to build a perfect survey on any mobile device, and the new breakthroughs come into focus. It's amazing: twenty years of advanced research methodologies are now utterly native to mobile.

Here's a parting thought: when you crank out that next infographic, better to make it with a tool created by actual researchers. Otherwise, it's just you alone out there with a fancy database thingy, hoping for the best. That sucks.

At least you have options.

The search for free, easy and fast online market research tools is now about 15 years old. As with all new things, it started out cute and promising; then came awkward adolescence. Like the Internet itself, clunky first and second versions gave way to increasingly elegant and functional iterations. Now, there's wide agreement that self-service market research (DIY research) has entered adulthood – call it version 3.0 – and it's all grown up.

The forces that brought about early free online market research tools haven't changed all that much. It still comes down to three overriding factors:

Marketers with basic proof of concept needs still don't want to pay for expensive professional focus groups and panels. They want options to administer simpler surveys in-house with their own databases. For larger bulk projects with repeatable brand-tracking or satisfaction-tracking metrics, centralizing research also makes sense.

Finally, keeping certain research in-house – as opposed to letting third parties handle it – gives added protection to the data privacy flank that is a priority for everyone.

The biggest maturation has been in the platforms themselves. Only recently have they paired advanced survey capabilities with ease-of-use, adding access to research scientists and industry consultants. This is a true evolution in the web-based self-service market research offering.

The Cost/Budget Drivers
Cost remains a core issue in market research. Early on in the life of products, budget simply isn't there, so some go without data and make decisions on the fly. Product managers and marketers understandably hate this approach. But those that have priced out studies know self-service market research typically comes in at significantly lower price points than full-service solutions.

This is where an internal database and a well-designed free research tool can make a huge difference. At this level it's all about finding answers quickly to prove assumptions and make decisions. The latest generation of free self-service research tools does this exceedingly well.

Later on in the exploratory cycle, when reporting to the board or senior management becomes necessary, the ability to add the authority of an external research scientist (someone outside of the company) is of great value. It lends credibility by way of independent third-party evaluation. Version 3.0 self-service research tools do this by linking access to more advanced tools and professional researchers, on demand.

For years, this kind of integration has been the missing link in these platforms.

Centralizing & Consolidating
Moving simpler, often repetitive forms of research in-house has become commonplace among larger enterprises. Think of automated customer satisfaction emails – everything from airlines to hotel chains to ride-sharing services and more send thousands of these a day.

Companies have saved tons of time and money by doing these themselves. Basic bulk surveys with a few well-formatted questions are easily managed with today's self-service research tools.

Similarly, larger companies often have numerous groups doing research on a variety of topics, often using different tools and vendors. It's the height of inefficiency. A few years back, corporate managers began waking up to this fact, and started consolidating these disparate research projects. Many were brought back in-house, enabled by branded products like reSearch Engine™, which are just white-labeled versions of free and low-cost self-service research platforms.

A confluence of factors made this possible: expertise with free online research tools had made a foothold inside many organizations, and the tools themselves were getting smarter.

Removing Risk from Research
As the more perilous aspects of data have been revealed – usually in the form of hacking and data theft – risk mitigation has come into play more. Banks and insurance companies have embraced the ability to run their own surveys using a self-service platform. That often extends to their vendors, whose choice of tools for research projects may be directed by their client.

This is especially (though not exclusively) true in the financial services sector. Increased regulatory oversight since the meltdown of 2007 has raised the bar on customer information security, online interactions, and even customer complaints. Self-service surveys help with this.

The Final Analysis
What started out around 1999 as an Internet fad had grown by 2010 into a viable model, albeit with some weak points. Today, free and low-cost self-service research tools are extending advanced functionality deep into organizations, solving problems and enabling progress.

Adopters of these version 3.0 research tools are giving a collective sigh of relief. Easy-to-use and entirely free – but with on demand access to data scientists, panels, gamification and more – the new generation of self-service market research tools have finally come of age.

Many project managers only need four things from early-stage research: they need it fast; they need it concise; they need it accurate; and they don't have a budget.

But when your boss says, "I want to know what people think about this topic and I need five slides on it for my meeting tomorrow," you still have to get it done. Like, now.

If you have a basic understanding of creating online surveys and can work within a powerful yet intuitive web interface, then relax. Armed with your own customer contacts, you can crank out a great little survey and have answers back in hours, in a format that can be easily dropped into a presentation. Boom. You're a hero.

This is where the newest, most advanced self-service market research tools come in. Unlike older sites and applications that have been around for years, the latest iterations combine free, fast, and easy options with seamless integration to real data scientists, if and when you need it. This enables a new world of speed, accuracy, and quality.

What's the Difference?
Newer self-service market research tools and older DIY options differ in this way: with DIY you're basically on your own. It's pretty common to create unreliable surveys in older tools. Many nightmare projects start that way. For short surveys demanding fast turnarounds and minimal errors, the newest tools are free, faster, and more perceptive.

Plus, high-level help is integrated should your short survey need to get more complex.

Newer self-service market research options provide access to qualified support that can help to weed out errors in survey design commonly made by non-professional researchers. Leading and biased questions are prevented, such as: "Now that we've told you about the features and great value of this product, how likely would you be to purchase it?" You'll get answers to that all right, but the data will be slanted - as will subsequent decisions made using that data.

Same goes for double-barreled questions such as, "Would you agree that the mayor is fiscally conservative and has a community-minded spirit?" There are two different parts of the question, so which part is your customer responding to? All kinds of problems like this can creep into DIY questionnaires. By sending out an incompetent survey you give yourself a black eye. The newest self-service tools steer you clear of this by giving you the expert support you need when you need it.

The Self-Service (DIY) Survey Checklist
With any launch, you need a checklist. Here's a simple 4-point checklist that helps you decide when a free self-service research tool is the right fit (and when it's not):

  1. Is the survey 15 questions or less? Go past this and you risk overwhelming quick-survey respondents. This kind of survey should not take longer than 8-10 minutes to complete. The shorter the better.
  2. Are your questions clear and straightforward? Keep it simple. We're talking yes/no, or pick one of these five, rate your opinion about this, or write a sentence about how you feel. Fast and easy.
  3. Stay away from complex logic. When you hire a research agency, you can set all kinds of screening criteria (e.g., age, income, job, product preferences, etc.). But unless you have advanced analytical and survey design skills, avoid complex screening criteria in basic self-service surveys. It's all about minimalism.
  4. Don't assume you can just stick complex analysis on the back end. You just want some answers for proof of concept, or to quickly take a segment's temperature. Trying to apply multivariate statistical techniques to this kind of basic data can be a bear to manage (unless you add expert consulting to help plan and execute).

The Need for Speed
Clearly, speed and accuracy are the big differentiators between older DIY websites and the latest self-service marketing research tools. It's speed-to-decision where self-service research is really proving to be a game-changer.

Of course, more experienced research departments need more advanced tools. They understand complex skip patterns, customized piping logic, sample balancing, and beyond. And here's the new paradigm: the current self-service research tools are accessible to inexperienced research users, while at the same time providing robust functionality to research pros. It's an elegant combination that creates a lot of efficiency. Did somebody say hero?

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