I was mucking out my spam folder (where lots of not-quite-garbage bulk or automated email ends up) and accidentally opened this message which I ordinarily would have deleted on the basis of the subject line alone:

Six questions for $20

Interesting.  Some outfit that thinks I’m a doctor wants to give me $20 to answer six questions.  Or maybe it’s just phishing.  Actually, I think I know exactly the chain of fail that’s about to lead to this organization wasting $20 on me.

Fail #1: Somewhere out there, a contact form I filled in demanded that I give it my “title” and would not proceed until I did.  When this happens, I generally get annoyed and give a bogus answer which is usually “Dr.”  (when “Msgr.” is unavailable) If you want to know my gender or marital status or how to address me in a message, just ask, but those things better be related to what I’m applying for and I’d better be able to skip the nosy ones.

Fail #2: Somewhere out there, somebody sold my name to the medical survey people, or to some intermediary who sold it to them, probably for a premium, since I’m a doctor.  This isn’t necessarily against the law or even against the privacy policy of the site in Fail #1 (I wouldn’t know since I’m very unlikely to read such policies) but it is sort of annoying, and as we will soon see, unprofitable.

Fail #3: Somewhere out there, some medical survey people are aggregating data from real doctors and wiseasses like myself and selling it to who knows whom without so much as a double-check on the qualifications of the survey takers.

So let’s review the value chain here:

  1. I gave up my contact info for nearly nothing
  2. Somebody sold that info for a few cents
  3. Somebody else sold it on for a dollar or two
  4. Somebody offered me $20 for my unqualified opinion
  5. Somebody will sell the data from those opinions for thousands

Not a bad business, as long as you’re not left holding the bag of lousy data.

I think there are a few nuggets of wisdom here that marketers can use:

Nugget #1: When you require an answer to a question, you increase the chance of spurious data, especially when the question has a limited set of responses.  The sales guys always want a phone number, but if you make it required, they end up having to sift through a bunch of 555-1212 and 867-5309 and 382-5633 or worse.  So don’t ask anything more than you really really need to know.  And think seriously about whether the old Mr./Mrs./Ms. categories are really right for your audience.

Nugget #2: If you still insist on buying lists or leads or panels, ask hard questions about where the data came from and how it was collected.  Are they really opt-in?  How confident are we of their accuracy?  What response rate has this list produced for others?

Nugget #3: If you offer an incentive for a survey, be extra careful about how you qualify participants.  Too rich a prize and too loose a screen means money wasted and data watered down.  And for only six multiple-choice questions, $20 is pretty rich.

So I answered my six multiple-choice questions.  They weren’t difficult.  I didn’t even have to fib.  They looked a lot like more qualifiers for future questioning than actual research, but given my answers I probably won’t get called back.  But I did get my $20 gift card.

In an admittedly feeble effort to restore balance to the world, I’m making an offsetting $20 donation to Mrs. F’s classroom in New York State via donorschoose to help buy a globe and some maps.  If you’ve committed data sins like those above, maybe you’ll donate too.