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Survey Response Rates in the Time of COVID-19 Part II

Well, it’s 2021. Happy new year! And while the new year always seems brimming with possibilities in these early weeks, this year things seem especially uncertain, strange, and off-kilter. With COVID-19 vaccinations underway across the country, and the possible return to something that looks like life as we know it starting to look like true light at the end of the tunnel and not an oncoming train, we here at DDG are feeling hopeful for the future. But we also know that the events of the past year will continue to impact consumers, and businesses, for quite some time. In this blog we’d like to take a moment to look back at some of the insights we gathered in 2020.  

Everyday life was very different.

Lockdowns and social distancing requirements meant that we had to learn to function in very different ways than we might otherwise. Working from home (if you were lucky enough to still be employed), Zoom calls, and online school became a part of everyday life for a significant proportion of the population. Sometimes those things all happened simultaneously. In a study we conducted in July 2020, 67% of respondents reported at least some level of disruption in their employment status. 77% reported a change in their retail shopping habits. And a whopping 84% said their leisure activities, such as eating out or going to a movie, were affected by COVID-19.

Money was tight.

Rising unemployment rates and business closures dominated the headlines. In our July study 45% of people said they had put off major purchases (such as automotive and furniture) due to the uncertainty around financial issues during this time. In a separate study we conduct, one that has been in continuous measurement for over 4 years, we ask people how they feel about their financial situation now compared to 6 months ago.

Heather Blog

Historical data for this question dating back to 2017 show around 9-11% of people indicating their situation is worse now than it was. In Q2 of 2020, that number jumped to 17%, then to 20% in Q3, and finally to 25% in the final three months of the year.

Every industry was affected.

Some types of businesses floundered in 2020 (local businesses, malls, restaurants, bars, airlines), and others flourished. 66% of people in our July survey said they were shopping more online, many of them to take advantage of special deals online retailers were offering. Amazon reported more profit in the first nine months of the year than they did in the entirety of 2019.

The pandemic certainly changed everyday life for most Americans. And we in the marketing research business know that in times of great change, survey respondent behavior can change as well. With that said, we certainly did see some changes in the way respondents reacted to our surveys, not just the way their lives changed.

  • As we wrote in an earlier blog post, 2020 was a good time to try to reach consumers through telephone surveys; with more folks at home and many of them with more time on their hands, our ongoing customer satisfaction tracker definitely benefited by requiring fewer attempts to reach respondents on the phone.
  • DDG had good luck with traditional mail-based research in 2020 as well. We conduct an annual customer satisfaction study for one of our clients that, due to the contact information available, is not a good fit for a phone or web study, so it’s administered via postal mail. The survey is fielded in the fourth quarter every year, with the same audience. This year, we expected to see lower return rates for three related reasons: 1. well-publicized delays in the postal mail system, 2.) exponentially larger volumes of mail-in ballots than usual for the 2020 election, and 3) overwhelming e-tail shopping package demands. Because of that, we extended the field window by a few days to hopefully get as close as we could to the previous year’s return rate of 13.9%. Instead, we found that by the end of the originally scheduled field window we had already matched the 2019 return rate, and those extra few days in the field allowed us to reach a final return rate of 14.3%. Having expected lower returns due to expected delays in survey arrivals and returns, this was a nice surprise.
  • Except for a brief period surrounding the Presidential election that we’re interpreting as “polling fatigue”, we didn’t see significant changes in response rates to our web surveys. So, while we didn’t experience the improvements that we saw on the phone and through the mail, we didn’t lose any ground, either.

So, what’s next?

Only time (and quantitative marketing research, of course) will tell. We enter 2021 with a new Presidential administration, a vaccine for COVID-19 in distribution, and a whole lot of uncertainty about what the rest of the year will look like. DDG is committed to continuing to work with our clients to deliver insights about our changing world and how it affects their business. And we’re hopeful that sooner rather than later, we’ll get to do it in our offices in beautiful Chapel Hill, NC, rather than in our homes.

I will miss working in my pajamas, though.  

Heather Primm
Heather Primm
Heather Primm

Heather Primm, Director of Operations, came to Data Decisions Group in 1996 in a part-time capacity as an interviewer in the call center at night while working in property management during the day. Now, over twenty years later, Heather has spent time in almost every functional area of the company, working in quality control, project coordination, project management, product management, and now management of the operations team that delivers high-quality data and research solutions to our clients.

In her role at Data Decisions Group, Heather wears a number of different hats: consulting at the project level, keeping the team abreast of legislative changes that impact our industry, product development, process improvement, and relationship management. What she loves best about the work she does is helping deliver high-quality, actionable results to our clients that allow them to improve their business performance…and their bottom line.

Heather received her undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1992.