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May 16, 2019

Walkthrough: hosting an online market research survey in China

What Chinese consumers are thinking is a myth to a considerable number of foreign companies. Chinese culture is very different from that of Europe or the US, thus nurturing more or less unique mindsets. This renders “by common sense this must be true” not quite working. Under such circumstances the easiest approach would be to conduct online surveys. This is exactly the topic of this post. With years of experience, we have quite something to share about how to and how not to do surveys in China.

1. Go directly online. Don’t bother with offline surveys.

If you are based in China, the sight of a huge number of people walking the streets might be very tempting. If you are having an idea like “if only a fraction of them could fill out my questionnaires, I will have a mountain of valuable data”, stop it. The thing with offline survey is that you can’t make your survey guy stand out from street side hollers, by which I mean those trying to send out advertising leaflets, trying to sell people Amway products, or even trying to randomly recruit people for whatever job they might have in mind. The guys you throw onto the streets will be instantly lost in a sea of them, and be ignored by pedestrians as “yet another leaflet giver”. What you end up with will most likely be a stack of partially filled up questionnaires *trickling in*. To get a large flow of responses over a short time you need to hire a small legion of survey boys and scatter them all across the town, which is actually too much a cost for such simple purpose. Well, if you really feel it necessary to go offline, remember to send only foreigners to the streets, preferably Caucasians. Having a instantly recognizable different look will help to get more responses.

2. Find a proper platform.

Your first thing to do will be to look for a survey platform, unless you have your own built by somebody already. What’s unique about China is that the government blocks a lot of foreign websites with a national firewall matrix (a.k.a. the Great Firewall). Before deciding to go with a survey platform, find someone in China to test it for you. Can they access your test survey without relying on any proxy or VPN aid? Is the page loading speed satisfying in China? The safest approach is to find a Chinese survey system provider, but sadly most of them do not have any English user interface for foreign administrators to work on. Your call.

3. Make it short and quick.

When building an online survey form, it should always be kept in mind that the questionnaire should be as short as possible. Don’t thrown in any pointless but seemingly “doesn’t hurt to have” questions, combine similar questions, and keep on one thing instead of forking the survey into a thousand little topics in order to squeeze as much information as possible from subjects. Most Chinese netizens see filling up online surveys as doing somebody a great favor. Unless doing your survey is a lot of fun, or you are paying your subjects to do so, or you know all your subjects and are in rather good relationship with them, they won’t give a second look to something like 30 questions long. Think about this:

  • China has over 400 million netizens
  • Tencent Tech is one of the most popular tech portals in the country
  • Tencent Tech has a single question survey on its home page every week
  • The single question survey is so easy to fill out that you don’t even have to click a “submit” button
  • Through the Nov 28 to Dec 4 week, Tencent Tech’s weekly survey got only 1,463 responses
  • Through the week before that, Tencent Tech’s survey got 1,984 responses
  • Let’s date it one more week back, survey of the week got 3,475 responses

So, do have your expectations tuned. Large population does not guarantee epic number of responses.

4. Avoid open questions.

Always build your questionnaire with multiple choice questions. Things like “what do you think of…” should be avoided at any cost. Be aware that your typical Chinese are not trained to have independent thinking. From kindergartens to colleges, Chinese people are always told to stick to the “right answers” instead of inventing anything new. So “what do you think” is a rather tough question to a lot of them, especially when they do not know much about the subject of the survey. “If I get this one wrong, they will think I’m ignorant and dumb, and laugh at me” kicks in then, followed by “so I’d better leave it blank”. And don’t forget that people tend to think they are going out their way to do you a favor filling out a simple questionnaire already, thus having to write or type some stuff up is certainly a lot to ask for. What you will get from open questions most likely be: A) blank nothingness (if the questions could be skipped); B) some random strings or numbers (if it can’t be skipped). Make life easier for everyone by always giving people choices.

5. Avoid asking about subjects’ exact income.

In general, Chinese find it insulting to be asked “how much exactly do you (does your family) make per month”. Well, that topic is generally disliked everywhere, but in China where the “face” culture is strong, it’s double bad. If you feel it really necessary to ask about subjects’ income, make it a dropdown list with several pre-defined income levels. Do not make them fill in a blank with numbers. People might feel uncomfortable, lie about the real number, or simply feed you with some nonsense (like 8 zeroes straight).

6. Always set up some incentive.

Remember the bits about how people feel like they are going out of their ways to help you? Well, make them feel otherwise! Set up a reward. Instead of giving everyone a little bit money, make it a very tempting package only for the lucky few. “Fill up this form and instantly get 5 RMB in return” sounds very shabby, but “fill up this form to be qualified for an iPad lottery” is a totally different story. This sure works everywhere, but on Chinese netizens you will see the anticipation meter jumping from 0% to about 95%. The “a little money for everyone” only works when you need to conduct a series of research projects in China over a long period, and need to build up a stable subject base.

7. Don’t overly rely on social media.

You might have heard that microblogs and such are super popular in China, and feel it smart to spread your survey on Sina or Tencent microblog. This is not entirely wise. Popular as social media is, it’s not replacing traditional ways of online communications (instant messaging or BBS) in China. The emerging social media should be more correctly defined as “sidearm”. In reality, the overwhelming majority of Chinese netizens each has a QQ IM account. A veteran QQ user should easily have 600 to 800 close contacts accumulated over the past decade. They may greet each other on microblogs every once in a while, and then switch to QQ for more detailed conversation.  2 team members with about 300 QQ contacts and 10 QQ chat groups each will probably push your survey a much longer way than a microblog account with 10 thousands followers does.

And BBS is another great place to promote your survey, with the best choice being Baidu Tieba. Tiaba is a massive BBS with unlimited number of discussion boards defined by keywords and topics. Regional boards such as Beijing board, Shanghai board, Guangzhou board could present your survey form instantly to a huge number of users, especially when there is a tempting reward. Of course Baidu Tieba has a very sensitive anti-spam mechanism. It’s well worth investing a few weeks on the most potential boards, and make your account known, established, or even respected there. So the moderator might tolerate your promotional posts. Of course don’t market it too hard on BBSes. Tianya, arguably China’s most popular BBS, will lock your account up for several days if you are caught spamming. Baidu Tieba keep a robot eye on you and automatically (and instantly) delete your new post if it contains some spam-sensitive words.

And of course feel free to tweet the survey on any Twitter-equivalent of China. As just told, it’s your sidearm, so why not fire it?

Don’t have too much confidence on email promotion, except when you are sure the guys in your send list all have a habit of checking email regularly. Chinese netizens use instant messaging a lot more than email. Last time we sent survey links to over 1000 subjects, and only 50 of them clicked through over a span of 4 days.

8. Setting up access restrictions

It’s natural to set up some access restriction rules just in case some subjects unintentionally did the survey more than once, or intentionally taking it again and again to boost their chance of winning the reward. No matter which case, what they generate will be just noise data to you. Here we have some tips for defining such restrictions:

  • Don’t choose anything like “one time access per IP address”. China never had enough IP addresses to cover the country’s entire internet. Usually the people in a whole company, building, or compound share one single IP address. By choosing that you are effectively barring a lot of innocent people out.
  • Instead, give one time access to each different PC. This is always done with cookies, and by switching to a different browser or cleaning up cookies would easily allow a subject to cheat. But be assured that most subjects won’t or can’t do that.
  • Always manually examine and clear survey data at the end of the project. When there is a reward, there will always be cheaters or even bots.

These tips should have you considerably well covered in a survey project. Of course you will have to try a few times to get the hang of it first. If what you need is a few quick projects, and you have no intention of keeping a long term campaign, it’s advisable to hire a local company. It’s actually cheaper for a Chinese company to do these works, and it saves a lot of trial and error.

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