Social marketers caught cheating in online surveys, casting doubt on paid internet research

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A warning from University of South Florida researchers: Scammers are taking advantage of online surveys that pay for participation — a market research method that has become more common practice since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic .

This finding stems from a study that began just before the pandemic began in 2020. The Florida Department of Health Bureau of Tobacco Free Florida funded the USF College of Public Health and Muma College of Business to evaluate the messages of anti-tobacco public interest using neuromarketing. measures. The researchers planned to monitor the participants as they watched the PSAs using electroencephalograms, sensors that measure hand sweat and heart rate, and computer software that tracks eye movements. and facial expressions.

But like many aspects of research, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the USF team to pivot its approach to an “at-home” setting. They and the lab’s technology partner, iMotions, reconfigured the study and the software, limiting it to facial expression and attention analysis via webcam. Participants were also asked about the effectiveness of PSAs, producing what is known as a Perceived Effectiveness (PE) score. Many agencies and institutions rely on PE scores to identify the most compelling public service announcements in specific media markets.

In a study published in the journal Quarterly social marketingthe researchers report that the facial expression data showed that a large percentage of participants may not have been who they claimed to be and that their data could have significantly altered the results.

Participants had to be a current or recent tobacco user, a resident of Florida, and have access to a web camera. They were recruited using two methods: through community partners sharing digital flyers and through a professional recruiter. Participants were offered a cash or other incentive to watch three of the 12 PSAs in random order.

Despite signing a consent form explaining that their faces would be recorded, 42 of the 92 responses from the ‘community’ group were wrong, either using stock photos instead of their faces or responding to the survey several times with different IP addresses. Even the 409 approved panel recruiter responses included 45 who deployed deceptive tactics, such as uploading a video of someone looking at something on a screen or demonstrating a lack of engagement, which was calculated by the position of the participant’s head.

“This research presents a cautionary tale about paid online surveys,” said co-author Rob Hammond, marketing instructor and director of the Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation at USF. “In addition to the deliberate misleading behavior of the community and controlled panel groups, the lack of attention suggests that individuals may approach online surveys ‘like a job,’ resulting in less effort and attention. “

These results show the impact that fraudulent data can have on the results of a study. When ranking the PSAs by PE score, six of the 12 would have been misjudged. More importantly, two of the top three PSAs selected by valid respondents had black lead characters. These same PSAs did not rank in the top three based on the sample that included misleading responses.

“Public health agencies strive to develop culturally appropriate health messages. It is essential to test these messages with representatives of the intended audience,” said lead researcher Claudia Parvanta, professor and lead of the concentration in social marketing. “We have learned the hard way that we need to confirm that study participants reflect the desired cultural background, but also have sufficient interest in the subject under study.”

As survey marketing increasingly moves online, researchers suggest compensation should only be paid to respondents after verification of data.

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More information:
Robert W. Hammond et al, Caught in the act: detecting deception and respondent disinterest in online surveys. A case study using facial expression analysis, Quarterly social marketing (2022). DOI: 10.1177/15245004221074403

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Melvin G. Rodriguez