There’s no question that marketers are more focused than ever on the ROI of marketing research.  All too often, however, it seems that efforts to improve ROI aim to get more research per dollar spent rather than better research. 

Better survey design is one sure way to improve the ROI of marketing research.  However, despite advances in our understanding of the cognitive processes involved in answering surveys, market researchers continue to write poor survey questions that may introduce considerable measurement error. 

I think this is due in part to the fact that the processes involved in asking a question are fundamentally different from the processes involved in answering that same question.  Recent contributions to our understanding of the answering process have been integrated into a theory of survey response by Roger Tourangeau, Lance J. Rips, and Kenneth Rasinski (The Psychology of Survey Response, Cambridge University Press, 2000).  According to Tourangeau, et. al., answering a survey question involves four related processes:  comprehending the question; retrieving relevant information from memory, evaluating the retrieved information, and matching the internally generated answer to the available responses in the survey question.

“Think aloud” pretesting, sometimes known as “cognitive” pretesting or “concurrent protocol analysis” is an important tool for improving the quality of survey questions, and  well-designed think aloud pretests often have, been in my experience, the difference between research that impacts a firm’s business results and research that ends up on the shelf for lack of confidence in the findings.

Warning–what follows is blatant self-promotion of a sort.  ESOMAR is offering my workshop, “Think like a respondent:  A cognitive approach to designing and testing online questionnaires” as part of Congress 2011.  The workshop is scheduled for Sunday, September 18, 2011. This year’s Congress will be held in Amsterdam.  I’ve offered the workshop once before, at the ESOMAR Online Conference in Berlin last October.

Hope to see you in Amsterdam.


You’ve probably heard about Spirit Airlines’ decision to charge customers for carry on baggage–$30 per bag if purchased in advance, or $45 “at the door.” You’ll still get your one free “personal item.”  This latest example of an airline unbundling one more feature of its service offering resulted in a promise to Sen. Charles Schumer (D, NY) from five other major airlines that they will not follow Spirit’s lead, at least for now.

Spirit claims on its website that this charge will lower overall costs to passengers and improve service.  Here’s how this is supposed to work:  fares will be lowered somewhat, as will fees for checked baggage.  Since carry on bags have a big impact on how long it takes to board and to deplane (according to Spirit, but many passengers will probably agree), reducing the number of carry on bags on a flight will reduce turnaround time and get passengers off the plane more quickly once it has arrived at its destination.  Security lines will also move more quickly (ignoring the effect of passengers traveling on other carriers who will still have their carry on bags).

One wonders whether Spirit gathered any consumer intelligence or conducted any experiments to arrive at this decision.  Airlines have had varying success at generating revenues by implementing fees for service features that were once bundled into the fare.  US Airways, for example, seems to have retreated from charging for non-alcoholic beverages (including bottled water).  JetBlue has started charging for headphones but recent experience suggests that on some flights they still may give them out for free once the plane has left the gate.  Fees for checked bags may stick–as long as you get that free carry-on–but any additional fee gives a competitor a potential point of differentiation.  Have you seen the Southwest commercial, “Battle Cry,” where the ramp crew, in the manner of sports fans, flash the passengers on a rival airline with “BAGS FLY FREE” spelled out across their chests?

People’s Express was one of the first post de-regulation airlines built around a low cost no-frills business model, and perhaps the first to charge for checked baggage ($3 per bag).  Many elements of PE resembled Southwest’s model–one type of aircraft, open seating, and really large overhead compartments for those carry-on bags.  Food and drink were available for purchase, and all the seats on a given flight were the same price.  In many ways, the experience was more like being on a train or bus than an airplane, and with one-way fares between Newark and cities like Boston as low as $19, a lot of passengers were likely switching from those modes.   There’s no question that PE helped democratize flying, overcoming the affordability barrier for many passengers.  Following it’s initial success, People’s Express went on a buying spree (taking on a lot of debt) and the legacy carriers discovered yield management, enabling them to match or come close to PE’s fares for at least some passengers.  With all that debt, PE abandoned its original customer value proposition and profit formula and began to look more like other airlines.  Ultimately, PE was acquired by Texas Air and ceased to exist as a brand.

Whenever an airline makes a move like charging for carry-on bags or for using the lavatory (Ryanair), I can’t help but wonder if they even have a customer value proposition.  One problem may be that flying on an airplane is only a means to an end (the job that the consumer wants to do at the other end of the flight) rather than an end in itself.  This makes it hard to find a price that both matches the value to the passenger (which is a function of the value of completing the job at the destination) and the cost of providing the service, plus some profit.  The carriers have long inferred that business travelers place more value on the job to be done at the destination, and they have implemented a variety of pricing strategies to segment their customers based on the assumption that leisure travelers are far more price sensitive.  However, most of the assumptions about pricing do not reflect any understanding of the ways customers evaluate pricing relative to the value of the jobs to be done.  In the absence of such understanding, carriers have resorted to “mechanical” solutions to pricing and revenue generation.

Actions like Spirit’s carry-on fee often provide new instances of the law of unintended consequences.  It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few months.  Will Spirit retreat, or will other carriers follow suit?

Copyright 2010 by David G. Bakken.  All rights reserved.

Yahoo Finance published an article today from Investopedia by Mark Riddix titled “Business on the brink: Change or fail?”  Of the five companies profiled, the only one that evokes a twinge of sadness for me is Borders Books (the others are Blockbuster, Rite-Aid, Palm, and trucking company YRC). (more…)

An insightful new report from Boston Consulting Group reveals that “most companies have not yet unlocked the value of consumer insight.”  The report is based on a quantitative survey of more than 800 executives from 40 global companies with at least $1.5 billion in sales.  The survey was supplemented with around 200 qualitative interviews, and the participants included line managers as well as members of the consumer insight function in these companies.

The authors found that companies fall into one of four stages of consumer insight capability:

  • traditional market research function
  • business contribution team
  • strategic insight organization
  • strategic foresight organization.

The companies falling into the last two stages are getting the biggest return on their investments in consumer insight.  However, according to this report, only about 10% of the surveyed companies are in one of these two stages of insight capability.  In Stage 1 companies, the insight function is more or less an “order taker” relegated to “back room” status, and the focus is on tactical research.  Things are a little better in Stage 2 companies in that  sometimes projects are more strategic, but the insight function is still project-focused.

If the consumer insight function is relegated to back room status in the majority of companies, does that make research agencies a back room to the back room? (more…)

The current issue of The Economist (January 30 -February 5 2010) features a 15-page special report on social networking.  Typically thorough, the report covers history, the differences between major players (Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace), benefits for small businesses, potential sources of profit for social networking sites, and some of the “peripheral” issues–such as the impact on office productivity and privacy concerns.  For any marketers who’ve been caught by surprise by the emergence of social media and social networking as marketing forces or been watching out of the corner of their eye, this special report might be especially informative. (more…)

The Psychology of Survey Response by Roger Tourangeau, Lance J. Rips, and Kenneth Raskinski (Cambridge University Press, 2000) will change the way you think about the “craft” of survey design.  While there are other, well-regarded books on survey question construction (such as Asking Questions by Norman Bradburn, Seymour Sudman, and Brian Wansink, Jossey-Bass, 2004) and tons of individual research papers and articles on various aspects of survey design, measurement scales, question construction and the like, this is the first book I’ve encountered that presents a practical conceptual framework for understanding the cognitive processes that produce a response to a given question.  Moreover, the authors review a lot of relevant research to support their framework.