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Sunday, 17 October 2010

Survey Hosting - Meaning?

Survey hosting can mean different things to different people. At one end of the spectrum it can refer to an ASP offering market research software where users can program and administer their own surveys. At the other end of the spectrum it can refer to a full-service survey solution where the survey company's professional staff programs and administers the survey on its own platform. This article describes differences in each approach and discusses some of the key considerations in the selection of a survey hosting vendor.

Survey Hosting and Software:

There is a limited number of survey and market research companies using their own research software to conduct surveys. End user clients of hosted survey solutions should note that the survey vendor might not be the actual developer of the software and/or could be hosting its surveys on another vendor's platform. Many survey companies license their survey software from a 3rd party vendor specializing in survey engine development and install the software on their own platform. Other companies license the use of hosted survey solutions on another vendor's platform to circumvent the need for software installation and ongoing hosting. In the case of licensed software, if the software developer does not provide a complete roadmap of the installation requirements, the survey software alone might not provide an adequate solution. Relevant factors can include: processing power of the hardware; proper selection and configuration of application servers (if needed); database selection and configuration; and the amount of bandwidth.

General Considerations:

In evaluating the best choice of vendor in the survey hosting space, here are five considerations -- some of which are more important than others depending on your specific requirements:

Do you prefer to program and administer the survey on your own (ASP model) or would you rather contract these functions with a full-service hosted survey provider?

Does your survey instrument require special features or custom programming?

If you are engaging in market research surveys, how easily does the software coordinate with sample providers i.e., does the software offer redirects and/or recording of PINs? Does the software offer quota stops? Does the software offer respondent filtering?

Does the software and its environment offer fast page views and an error-free survey experience for the volume of participants you are expecting?

Will you be able to provide technical support for survey participants?

Pick the software that matches your needs:

Regardless of whether you select an ASP or full-service solution, you need to identify the requirements needed for your survey projects and whether the software can meet those needs. For example, if you expect to use such features as skip logic programming, branching, piping, percent tables, etc., then you want to select a vendor that offers these features.

Similarly, if you expect to have a large volume of survey takers and/or use survey instruments which are long (such as 15 minutes or longer), make sure that the software has the capacity to handle this with fast page views and error-free data collection.

If you require custom programming of question types or programming logic to meet your survey needs, make sure that the vendor can provide a solution. For example, if the survey company is not the developer of the software and does not have a IT development staff, there might be limitations on the custom features it can offer. Before selecting a vendor, ask for a general cost estimate on the development and deployment of your custom survey solutions.

What about technical support?

Obviously, you will want the vendor to provide you with adequate technical support. If you select an ASP model, you may have questions on different stages of the user process. A full-service approach passes the responsibility of deployment and administration onto the vendor; although there is a cost for this service.

Just as important as your own technical support is the technical support provided to survey participants. There needs to be a process in place to promptly respond to their questions, collect and remove incorrect email addresses from the system, and manage unsubscribes. If you adopt an ASP approach that does not provide tech support for survey participants, be sure to designate several persons at your organization to handle support and make sure they are appropriately trained to answer technical questions.

Full-service versus ASP -- do you need professional services?

The field of survey data collection generally requires as close to perfection as possible in every step of the process to produce a reliable data set. One of the most important considerations in deciding whether an ASP approach to survey hosting will best meet your needs is your ability (and availability) to program, administer, and monitor the survey. This can depend on such factors as the complexity of the survey instrument; length of the survey instrument; number of survey participants; and time in the field. Your own (or staff member's) survey expertise is also important, as is the ease of use of the ASP interface. It is important to carefully examine the processes of each ASP vendor to make certain that you are comfortable choosing such a solution over full-service.

Special considerations in the case of market research surveys:

Programming and administration of market research surveys can require special expertise. Screening questions need to be properly programmed to terminate non-qualifying participants and quota stops may need to be used to prevent excess completes in particular cells (manual monitoring is possible but it can require constant attention). In addition, survey panel vendors providing survey sample may require interaction with their own platform. Some will accept recording of PINs for each respondent; while others will require the insertion of re-direction links. It is important to be certain that the hosted software correctly interfaces with the sample provider you will use.

Another relevant consideration for market research surveys is the ability of the survey hosting platform to provide respondent filtering. This can take many forms at different vendors. At a minimum, you will want to be able to remove survey data of respondents who provide incomplete, contradictory or straight-lined responses. The availability of respondent timers is also a nice feature because it allows you to identify and remove respondents who rushed through the questionnaire. It is also helpful if the platform allows you to record each respondent's PIN against his/her responses and use this information to re-sample those respondents, if needed.

In summary, when evaluating the concept of survey hosting, it is important to determine which model - ASP or full-service - will best meet your needs and fully price out each vendor based on your specific requirements. Start with your underlying software needs to determine which solutions meet all or most of your requirements. Consider your programming and administration requirements and decide if you or a member of your staff has the desire, time, and ability to self-administer the survey. A properly administered survey can be a time-consuming process.

Marc I. Tillman is a member of the professional services staff at Amplitude Research, Inc, a full-service online survey company headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, that builds its own survey engines. Please visit Amplitude's survey hosting page to learn more about its service offerings.

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