Package Insert Surveys Spur Research

You probably have conducted research at one time or another. Perhaps you’ve conducted focus groups to test new creative concepts, or perhaps you’ve conducted quantitative research to determine overall consumer behavior in a new product category. But research may not be a routine part of your marketing planning.

Catalogers have a wealth of information to analyze in their own databases, so some don’t give much thought to routinely collecting more data by conducting research. But there’s a research method of which every cataloger should take advantage. It allows you to make research routine. It’s insightful. It’s economical.

It’s called a package insert survey. A survey is inserted into a shipped package that the customer returns by mail.

Researchers will note that the sample in such a survey is self-selected — not random. This means the results can’t necessarily be projected to all the customers who have received packages. Despite this limitation, the data from package inserts is incredibly valuable. We think respondents to these surveys tend to be your most loyal customers — and aren’t their opinions especially valuable? In addition, package surveys are best used to spot trends or changes in the market or your performance — before they affect your business. It’s the trend that’s important. Routine package insert surveys can function as your “canary in a coal mine” to warn of potential problems.

You may have previously experimented with inserting a simple survey in your packages, perhaps with disappointing results. The response rate may have been low or the information not very enlightening. You may have dismissed this opportunity. A few simple techniques can ensure that you don’t make this mistake again.

Improving response rates. Obviously, the lower the response rate the more questions that can be raised about the representativeness of the data. But if you know how to get someone to open an envelope, then you should be able to get him to complete a survey. You can make the respondent feel important by making the survey look important.

Many catalogers make the mistake of putting their surveys on business reply cards or self-mailers. This is inexpensive, and the thinking is that it looks simple for the customer to complete. But the opposite is true. Since the survey doesn’t look important, customers aren’t compelled to complete it. It ends up to be more costly to achieve the desired number of responses. Use a formal letter and a persuasive plea from someone important in your company and you will dramatically improve results. Use real company stationery, a replica signature and a well-printed survey.

Getting insightful data. Proper presentation of your survey will get a better response rate. Customers will complete a well-presented four-page survey as, or more frequently than, a bland one-page survey. And four pages give you the opportunity to ask 50 to 60 questions. Here’s how I’d put a survey to good use.

The most obvious use of a package insert survey is to track satisfaction with performance. You should simplify what you ask about satisfaction, and focus on other important information. Here’s why:

Most customers think of their shopping experiences in very simple terms: Was it good or bad? If they had a bad experience, all responses will be tainted, and if they are satisfied, the fine points of their experience will not be top of mind. You should ask a global satisfaction question such as, “Overall, how satisfied are you with your most recent shopping experience?” and the trend, “Has it been improving or getting worse?” In addition, you can ask three or four specific questions covering critical areas such as ordering and customer service, merchandise in stock, delivery time and condition of packages. Always ask for written comments — although only a few customers use this opportunity.

Tracking the competition should also be a priority when preparing your survey. Ask your customers what other catalogs they shop from, how frequently they buy from them or where they would look first for a particular type of merchandise. Ask them: Who has the broadest selection? The best prices? The most unique merchandise? Their answers will tell you where you stand today among your loyal customers and over time will allow you to identify trends in the competitive environment before they affect your business.

Similar questions about selection, prices and unique merchandise should be asked of your own catalog. Are these qualities improving or getting worse? Watch this data carefully, it tells you if you are on track or losing ground.

You can also check your catalog creative by asking specific questions on appeal of cover and layouts, organization of merchandise, ease of finding products, etc. Again, the trend of comments over time will be as important as the initial results.

If you’re looking for a rough guide to future sales, you can ask about intentions to make purchases in the future. These serve as an indicator of satisfaction with your catalog and as an indicator of confidence in the economy. This data is only useful when seen as a trend.

Finally, you should also ask demographic questions. Yes, respondents do fill these out. It’s actually quite rare that they leave them blank.

Looking ahead or back? It’s easy to be impressed with the way the catalog industry manages its business by the numbers, carefully understanding purchasing behaviors and making projections based on them. So why bother with research?

So long as the road is straight, you can drive a car looking out the rearview mirror. But we all know that adapting to changes is the difference between long-term success and failure. Research is the view out your windshield, and package inserts are a most economical and effective means to clearing this view.

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