What Do Listeners Want...Part One

in which I experiment on you

A while back I mentioned in this newsletter that I was working on a book, and I posted a snippet of what I was working on. I got a lot of great feedback from you—thank you!—and my brilliant wife gave me the solicited feedback that I should do that more often to test little bits of prose I am considering for the final product. So here you go. In the words of the great American poet Bruce Weigl (who also was the center on my Penn State English Graduate Department Intramural Basketball team—let me tell you, we kicked those Philosophy grad students squarely in the modus ponens) sometimes what we pass on to others is not a gift.

Here’s a thing I hear often from podcast hosts (both show hosts, and the networks that host their content): “we did a listener survey” to find out what our audience wants to hear. This generally warms the cockles of my heart, because it’s better than not asking your audience for feedback. (FYI, I am not sure where the cockles of my heart are, but I’ve posted a picture, above.) I put food on my family by executing things like listener surveys, and a few decades of continuous service in that regard have taught me a great deal about the best ways to go about this, and how to contextualize the results. I’ll say this—I don’t think there is such a thing as a useless survey. All surveys have value. Where they fall flat is often in how they are characterized or reported.

For instance, if you have an email database of your listeners and you send them a survey, some (small) percentage of them will fill it out. This has some value. But as soon as you characterize it as “I asked my listeners, and they said…” you are on thin ice. Mind your surroundings, Mr. Wayne. No, the more accurate thing to say is “I asked my listeners. Those who responded said…” because there is always a non-response bias to things like this. As I said—there is value in these kinds of surveys. You just have to know their limitations.

Well, what are those limitations, Tom? I thought you’d never ask. Let me give you a real-life example to think about, and maybe this will help you contextualize the type of feedback you currently get from your listeners.

I once got an invitation to take an online survey from a leading jeweler. The name of the jeweler isn't important--let's just say, they are a reassuringly expensive store that rhymes with "Spiffany." I got this survey because I made an online purchase with this retailer, and am thus on their mailing list. What struck me about this particular survey solicitation was the value it placed on my feedback: none. Sure, there was a perfunctory "thank you for taking the survey" line in there, but no actual incentive for me to take the survey. There's nothing remarkable about that fact; indeed, it's all too common for us to get survey requests that offer no incentives. It's why we associate online surveys with "quick and cheap." But, as the sign above my dry cleaner says: Quality, Service or Price--Pick Any Two.

For most shows, networks, or brands with moderately large databases, you could probably get a few thousand responses to any given survey without paying an incentive. And that final number can feel comforting in its…uhh..bigitude. But before you can really use that data for decision support, you have to consider the three great biases of any self-selected listener or customer survey of this type.

The Three Biases

1. Who wouldn't take that survey?

The first, of course, is the unknown of how many Spiffany customers just wouldn't take any web survey--and what their buying habits are. This is true of any online survey, and especially true of one with no incentive. Most leading professional market researchers will have some models of this, and will work with clients to understand and contextualize the data. But make no mistake—asking your listeners to take a survey without some kind of exchange of value will only generate responses from those who are intrinsically motivated to do so. You already have an analogue for this behavior: your podcast’s ratings in the iTunes database. Probably not a lot of 3-star reviews in there, right? They are like the comment cards at a Panera. You are only going to fill one out if you have had a particularly extraordinary experience, for good or ill. And those are not bagels. They are just bread with a hole.

2. What are the differences between those who would and those who would not take this survey?

If you only do self-selected listener/customer surveys based on your database, you will get responses, yes, but what you don’t know is who the people that didn’t respond are when they are home, to quote Molly Bloom. In a listener survey, that translates to, say, differential content preferences in respondents and non-respondents. For a retail brand, that might be a differential model of survey response probability by customer segment based upon spending habits. In other words, again using our Spiffany example, how much more (or less) likely are consumers who buy $20,000 rings to take an online survey than are customers who just bought a ceramic Dalmatian? (Wheel of Fortune, circa 1984 - the LAST PRIZE YOU BUY.)

I'm going to make an assumption here (and yes, it is an assumption, but the point is that you can't prove it right or wrong without doing the work): Customers who are in the top quintile of spending are less likely to take an online survey than are customers in the lower tier of spending. Or vice-versa. Or you don't know. But that's the point. If we assume the former to be true, however, then sending a survey with no incentive, no reward for completion, is likely to over-represent lower-tier purchasers.

This is likely true of your listeners, too, though the variable here is not price of purchase, but, perhaps, level of engagement with the show. But are those “most engaged” listeners the dead-center of your audience bullseye? Or are they the outliers? If you are only using this kind of research for feedback, this is an unknown unknown, to quote the poet Donald Rumsfeld.

3. Who couldn't take this survey?

Finally, back to Spiffany’s, it's important to remember that this was an online survey sent to the database of persons who had made a purchase at the company's website. Now, I've made two purchases with this particular retailer. The first was for about $250.00. A trinket! A mere bauble! I confidently entered my credit card information online and awaited the UPS truck. The second thing I purchased was reassuringly expensive (Reader, I Married Her), which required (in my case) some human contact. I made this purchase in the store, where I was not asked to provide my email address--and thus, this purchase is not connected to their online survey database.

If we again make an assumption that there is some magic price point (and it may differ by segment) over which an online purchase is ruled out, then patrons of this particular retailer who had only made purchases at this price point or higher would not have even been solicited to take the survey, while those who had made both (or only less-expensive purchases) would be.

In the case of a podcast, it is less about who couldn’t take a survey, and more about who can take it easily. If you put a link to an online survey in your show notes, you will get a differentially larger response from people who read your show notes. I don’t read many show notes, I must admit.

How To Fix The Problem

The net effect of these three biases is to create a compound non-response bias that you can't even begin to model unless you've done a fair amount of work ahead of time to quantify the segments within your database, to gather data about your listeners or customers who are not in your database, and to ascertain who amongst your list is most and least likely to take an online survey. All of this work is doable. And even if you don't do this work, this sort of survey isn't worthless--after all, it will give Spiffany information about the people in their database who are, in fact, likely to respond to email solicitations. So there's that.

But they didn't get me. And, at a personal level, I felt devalued in a way. It wouldn't take much to show me that they truly valued my opinion. But asking me to do their work for them, for free, after dropping the chunk of change I've spent with them? The temerity! The unmitigated gall! No, the more I spend with them, the more I want them to convince me that not only my custom, but also my feedback, are valuable.

In panels we have built both in the US and abroad, we've segmented potential respondents on a variety of dimensions, and we have a differential incentive tier for those segments. This at least gives us something we can tweak, so that we can get front-line retail clerks and CEOs if that is want we want. And yes, using a panel of CEOs for research costs more money than just popping a link in your show notes. That's life.

In the case of Spiffany, they could have offered a differential incentive system based upon what they know about me--how much I've spent. If they don't care about big-spenders, then there's no need--but if they do, then they need to figure out a way to reward them to take the survey appropriately. Again, Quality, Service and Price: Pick Any Two.

The other thing that Spiffany needs to figure out is a way to connect my in-store purchase with my online profile. That, too, requires an appropriate valuation. "Would you like to be on our database" is going to work for some sample of Americans, but it won't for others. Why would I want to give a retail clerk my email address? Well, I can think of lots of reasons--but all of them require some valuation of that intrusion. For some brands, that's the accumulation of points, or discounts.

The Virtuous Circle

With Spiffany, however, they have to be a little more creative. They don't discount, and they don't have sales, so they can hardly offer a "VIP" program that tarnishes their halo. But, again, they do know some things about me based upon my online purchase behavior, and they could know something about me based upon my in-store behavior. How do you reward the various segments of Spiffany customers without devaluing the brand? By not using Spiffany products or purchases as a part of the reward scheme.

In other words, while you might not want to offer me a 10% discount off my next purchase, you could buy me dinner. Or a free book on my Kindle. Or access to some kind of private event. You value my segment and make me an appropriate offer. Do that, and I'll do more than let you get to first base--you might even get to third. Get to third and you've gone beyond merely providing me with an incentive to take your survey--you've strengthened my loyalty to the brand, period.

For a podcast, that might be access to some content of value, but you do have to be careful here—if it’s just an exclusive episode of your show, you will get a response from the people for whom more of you is desirable—in other words, you biggest fans. Better to provide access to some other kind of exclusive content that they would find valuable. And regardless of the size of your audience, if you are going to make an audio solicitation in the show itself for listeners to fill out a survey—make it host-read and engaging. It makes a HUGE difference.

So many marketers have this received wisdom about online surveys being a great alternative because they are fast and cheap. But there is an enormous benefit to doing online surveys the right way, making an investment in all segments of your customer base, and creating a virtuous circle between the desire to share information with your brand, and the desire to spread information about your brand with others.


Lest the folks at Spiffany think I've picked on them, let me just say this: The blue bag. It's magic. Trust me on this one.

Plugs Without Shame:

  1. I’m co-hosting a webinar next week for our latest major public podcasting release, Super Listeners 2020, which we are doing in partnership with Ad Results Media and PodcastOne. We will examine attitudes about the effectiveness (and quantity) of podcast ads with the medium’s most active listeners. You can register here for the free presentation.

  2. My latest episode of Deep Six, the music show I host on Spotify Premium, is now live—this week, we go from Cradle to Grave in just six great songs, from one great artist. I’d love your feedback on the show!

Thank you so much for being a reader (and hopefully a subscriber) to my generally weekly musings. It sure means a lot. As always, just hit reply.

Have a great weekend.


Photo Credit: By Féron Benjamin - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2138439