Your Marketing Research Is Not Representative. Here's Why.

May 20, 2020 Author: Mario X. Carrasco

“You get a car! And you get a car, and you…!” When Oprah gifted 276 unsuspecting audience members a brand new fully loaded Pontiac G6, cheers erupted from the crowd. In a similar fashion, but with far less flair, when market researchers “gift” clients fully loaded sales pitches claiming “you, you, and you get representative research,” the deafening silence is even louder. You see, just as the cars Oprah gave away weren’t technically free (guests had to pay the taxes), more than likely, the marketing research you’re getting isn’t technically representative. And from the results of your last marketing campaign, you’re probably starting to figure that out.

Defining Representative

Before we dive into why your marketing research is not representative, let’s define what representative means. According to the Encyclopedia of Survey Research Methods:

A representative sample is one that has strong external validity in relationship to the target population the sample is meant to represent. As such, the findings from the survey can be generalized with confidence to the population of interest.

So, for example, we can take Census data from Texas to determine the demographic and geographic distribution of the population. Then, we can layer what we know about sports fandom (i.e., skews male, etc.) and create a sample meant to represent all sports fans in Texas by making sure everyone in the target population has an equal chance of being chosen for the survey. This is grossly simplifying the process but meant to give you an idea of how representative samples are created.

But, therein lies the problem.

Non-Representative Samples

Many factors impact the quality of sample, but few undermine its potential to be representative like the following:

Failing to Account for Changing Demographics

Researchers are ignoring the rapidly changing demographics in the U.S. For example, according to the Pew Research Center, North Dakota’s Hispanic population grew by 135% between 2008 and 2018. Additionally, Hispanic populations in South Dakota (75%), the District of Columbia (57%), Montana (55%) and New Hampshire (50%) also experienced rapid growth during this period. Most market research companies are only focusing on general market consumers in the U.S., choosing to use the 2010 Census to create their samples and disregarding post-2010 growth.

Serving English Only Surveys

Secondly, many surveys are only presented in English, despite the growing number of Spanish speaking consumers in the U.S.  According to Census data analyzed by the Washington Post, “The share of non-English speakers has been rising steadily for more than three decades. U.S. residents today are nearly twice as likely to speak a language other than English at home as residents in 1980, for instance.”

Spanish is one of the fastest-growing languages in the country. It increased by 233% between 1980 and 2013, according to Pew Research Center. In fact, there are more Spanish speakers in the U.S. than in Spain, making it second only to Mexico in Spanish speaking population.

The drop-off between the second and third most spoken languages in the U.S. is steep, but Chinese speakers still make up an impressively large sliver of the population with 2.8 million Chinese native speakers.

So, when your survey is only served in English, you are missing out on 37 million Spanish speakers and almost 3 million Chinese speakers in the U.S.

Using a Non-Responsive Survey Design

Finally, the last reason your marketing research isn’t representative is that it’s not mobile-friendly. Holding onto your company’s 20-year-old 30-minute tracker to preserve longitudinal data is costing you the ability to compile a truly representative sample. According to Pew Research, “Today roughly one-in-five American adults are “smartphone-only” internet users – meaning they own a smartphone but do not have traditional home broadband service.”

That means that someone who relies solely on their mobile phone for accessing the internet will likely abandon a 30-minute survey that is not mobile optimized. Since mobile-first consumers are typically younger adults and non-whites – both critical growth targets for companies in the U.S. – their valuable insights are being left out of your research simply because they’ve run out of patience.

Final Word

As market researchers, we rarely think about representative sample. With looming deadlines, new product launches, and digital marketing campaigns launching daily, getting the research out quickly and efficiently is our typical M.O. However, if your research is on time but not representative, are the decisions being made amplifying the voice of the consumer – all consumers?

Ensuring your research is representative may seem like an impossible task but auditing your research process on a project by project basis will make tackling the problem more manageable.

If you are working with a market research vendor and feel as if your next project is at risk, share this blog with them, and express your concerns. If they are worth their salt, they will jump at the chance to explain their process and make tweaks, if necessary, to ensure your marketing research is representative.