9 OCTOBER 2002
There is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to carrying out a survey. Misco Marketing Intelligence Services General Manager Anthony Carabott speaks to David Lindsay about the science of market research, its sticking points and how people have become accustomed, over the years, to being asked all sorts of questions
When the name Misco is mentioned one automatically thinks of surveys. After all, how many of us have had a Misco interviewer at their doorstep asking for a few moments of our time?
Set up in 1983, Misco can rightly claim to have surveyed a sizeable portion of the population - interviewing in excess of 20,000 people a year. However, while Misco is best known for its work in market research, it is also associated with training, recruitment, management and marketing consultancy. The research side of things is in fact carried out by a sister company, MISCO International, which is a joint venture between MISCO and MEMRB Custom Research Worldwide, now owned by the AEGIS Group. The Group has affiliate offices all over the globe and is responsible for carrying out a good deal of multi-country assignments.
The Maltese have not always been as familiarised with surveys as they are today and there have been considerable developments in the way people respond to relative strangers quizzing them on everything from what detergent they buy most frequently to their income bracket.
As Misco General Manager Anthony Carabott explains, "In the late 1980s, when I joined Misco, people were more sceptical about what a survey was all about. Sometimes after going through a questionnaire people would ask what we were trying to sell and if they had to buy it. And of course it was nothing of the sort.
"There is an education process involved and part of that includes giving out thank-you notes to respondents, leaving our phone numbers in case they have any doubts or queries. Now people are realising what a Misco survey involves, they know they are giving their opinion, that it counts and that it is in no way traceable back to them.
"We are very much the middlemen in all this, we have a number of obligations to our clients but the respondents have various rights that we have to respect, such as data protection, invasion of privacy and even the time of day the interview is carried out."
Having never been interviewed before, I ask where they are generally carried out door-to-door, in the street, by telephone?
Most, Mr Carabott explains, are done by door-to-door visits. He explains, "Face-to-face interviewing is so much more effective than that carried out by telephone or in the street. Due to the nature of the surveys we are commissioned with, most of which tend to last between 30 and 45 minutes, it would be uncomfortable for the respondents to participate through intercept interviewing in the street or by telephone."
The market research Misco carried out has gained considerable acceptance over the years on a local level, with more and more organisations acknowledging its worth as a guide to future decision making. As companies become more customer-focussed, the more they need accurate consumer information.
I ask Mr Carabott about the validity of the televoting surveys we see so often on television and whether they are scientific enough to base public opinion upon.
He explains, "Televoting as such is not scientific because, despite the large numbers by which it is normally characterised, one may tend to have a biased sample and therefore a result which is not necessarily valid in that it is not truly representative of the population. A basic difference lies in the selection of people.
"One of the most important principles in market research is that everyone must have an equal chance of being selected and various techniques are used to ensure this. That is lost with televoting, as one does not know which segment of the audience is actually doing the voting and results are not then weighted accordingly.
"You can end up with a biased sample for example, because only people of a particular segment of the audience would be interested in answering, such as those who would be interested in winning a prize. At the end of the day, televoting is really an exercise in revenue generation."
"The way in which a question is asked can also determine the answer that is given and as such, question formulation is crucial to market analysis. There is no magical recipe that says you do a survey in a specific way or that you speak to so many people. There is a very meticulous planning process in that there has to be a great attention to detail from start to finish."
Questions requiring single "yes" and "no" answers present their own problems as well, as Mr Carabott explains, "When you think about it, very few things are either yes or no. You could also have questions that are sometimes loaded, consisting of more than one component. If a question has more than one component, when I answer yes, am I agreeing to all the components or to just one of them? This is also one of the differences between a scientific survey and a non-scientific survey."
All surveys, of course, carry a margin of error and the reliability and validity of a survey comes from clearly spelling out the methodology used.
Amongst the most problematic considerations in carrying out a survey are its length, the selection of respondents and how delicate the subject matter is perceived to be.
Mr Carabott elaborates, "If we had a survey where we had to interview users of a particular brand, it would be much more difficult than simply interviewing the public at large, since the users of other brands have to be first filtered out.
"We often have projects running in line with others being carried out in other countries and in such cases we would have less control on the questionnaire content and length. If a survey is being carried out across the whole of Europe, for example, the questions have to be consistent throughout, however not at the expense of not adequately capturing individual country characteristics due to the over-riding need of having a universal document.
"The actual questions themselves can also present difficulties at times. Whereas asking people which detergent they use may pose no problem some questions might deal with behaviour or income and could therefore render a project more difficult. But if that is the objective set out by the client, then that is what needs to be done.
"Thats where the challenge for a professional market research company lies - in trying to obtain knowledge that is difficult to obtain. Our competitive edge emerges when we are faced with such challenges because it is in those areas that we excel and derive the most satisfaction from."
In the run up to an EU referendum, there are expected to be a number of polls and surveys carried out with a view to determining the voting intentions of the Maltese. But how accurate can such surveys be, when elections are won and lost by such a narrow margin?
"Political surveys," Mr Carabott explains, "are a particular breed, especially in this country where politics are a closely fought battle. In these types of surveys, there are always a certain percentage of floating and undecided voters.
"One solution would be to use a larger sample size, but with the close competition in Malta, you would need to increase your sample by so much just to keep on reducing the margin of error that it would blow out of proportion.
"What you need for such assignments is to have surveys carried out regularly so as to be able to establish trends. It then becomes a question of analysing the differences in trends over a series of surveys."
This, in fact, has been in progress for some time now in the form of the Eurobarometer surveys, carried out periodically among the EU candidate countries.
Mr Carabott elaborates, "You cannot simply stop someone in the street and ask them how they would vote if a referendum were to be held tomorrow. There is a detailed build-up to the question and even though that question may be considered to be one of the most crucial, there are many other questions that give you a great deal of information as well."
Client and respondent confidentiality plays a large part in Miscos workings according to Mr Carabott, "Unfortunately more often than not, the jobs we carry out are confidential and less than one per cent of the assignments we carry out are published since clients use them to gain a competitive advantage."
Is this why he is reluctant to identify landmark surveys carried out by Misco? He explains, "We work in such a way as to ensure that each assignment is a landmark, not a landmark for Misco but for the client. The research assignment has to be an investment and not a cost for our client and we believe that with our professional yet pragmatic approach, our experience and our expertise we are able to do just that ensure it is an investment for our clients. This may explain in part why research in Malta is automatically associated with us."