Charities often have to work against public apathy – and so do surveys. The "knock on the door" or the rattled tin can go ignored.
Falling response rates for the National Readership Survey, as with other surveys, are one of the major concerns for the media industry in trying to ascertain reliable data on magazine and newspaper readerships.
Publishers have been concerned for some time with the sample size and validity of the NRS. This is highlighted by wide fluctuation in NRS results. The relative stability of the ABC results (which measure circulation and sales, of course)n can also show this up.
Now the NRS, under the chairmanship of Simon Marquis (see Media Week, 4 October), is proposing a solution – which involves bringing the survey online. It is designed to make it easier and quicker for respondents, while still providing publishers with the information they need.
The NRS hopes an online survey will cut down on the average interview time of 27 minutes, thereby encouraging more people to take part.
Those behind the survey freely admit that the need for modernisation is paramount. "There are concerns, there is no denying that," says Roger Pratt, managing director of the NRS.
Marquis believes "the principal issue is concerns over the current methodology" and that the internet might provide an answer.
The hope in the fight against falling response rates is that the growth of broadband will make the survey more accessible, and do away with those knocks on your door "on a cold February evening," as Marquis says.
To knock down the time taken to complete it, the NRS is considering splitting the survey into parts. This will involve asking half the interviewees about magazines and the other half about newspapers, and then combining the two for one set of results.
The NRS also hopes to create an access panel of over 100,000 people, whose personal information (currently 15 minutes of the interview) is already stored.
"And from that you can recruit a monthly sample," says Pratt.
Online surveys are, to some extent, coming of age, so the NRS is not going on a blind charge here. Roy Rogers, associate account director at research firm Millward Brown, says online surveys have increased 25 fold at his company in the past four years.
Rogers says: "There had been a lot of nervousness prior to the last two years, there were reservations about representation. But as penetration (of the internet) has increased, it is less of an issue."
Joanne Wilbraham, joint managing director of GfK NOP Media, says online surveys provide "a larger sample and a lot of data at a lower cost". But Wilbraham adds: "Conducting the NRS online is not a solution to falling response rates. By suitably incentivising a panel, the response rate among its members will be higher."
The point is not missed on the NRS. "We have to be cunning," says Pratt.
There is support for the initiative from publishers. "If everyone buys into it, we should move forward," says Guy Zitter, MD of the Daily Mail. Dave King, executive director at The Telegraph Group, admits the NRS has been "falling short" but he also is "very supportive". The Guardian's commercial director Stuart Taylor goes so far as to say, "it is all the things you want in a survey".
But the ride to online is not going to be that easy for the NRS. All the separate parties of the press will first need to be sure of proper representation in the survey, something which will require an online survey to be weighted, particularly for the 55-year-old plus group. Changes are expected to take at least two years before having an effect on the survey.
And separating the newspaper and magazine interviews will not come without its own problems either. Simon Barnes, commercial director of The Independent, warns: "The standards must be absolutely replicated in both parts of the survey."
The solution may be online, but, clearly, it is not a simple or straight-forward answer.
Three challenges for the NRS
? Ensuring an online survey is representative of the UK population
? Finding the right incentive to guarantee better survey responses
? Ensure both newspaper and magazine questionnaires are more accurate