Five reasons outsourced ‘opinion former’ engagement doesn’t work

Getting someone else to talk to ‘opinion formers’ using tick box telephone surveys doesn’t help your business.

I’ve blogged on this in the past, but half a dozen recent phone calls from research firms such as Millward Brown made me recall how pointless these surveys are.

They usually start with an oily-sounding character (it’s never a nice old lady!) asking for a 20-minute interview to help a ‘leading brand’ benchmark themselves.

Upon questioning, this timeframe is usually extended to “25-40 minutes” and followed by the line that: “in return we offer £50 to a charity”.

Nine times out of ten the caller says they can’t tell you who the brand is. I have no idea why they say this.

If one agrees to this, a bored individual then telephones a day or so later and asks a series of soul-destroying questions for what is usually a B2C brand.

The usually want you, as an ‘opinion-former’ to rank the anonymous brand against their competitors, on a scale of one to five.

Or ask, on a scale of one to five, or A-E, which issues are important for the company to tackle. Very quickly, it becomes obvious who the company is, and the caller then admits who it is. I must have had that conversation a dozen times before I stopped giving the interviews.

Here’s why this kind of outsourced engagement/benchmaking is a really bad idea:

1) Calls that come from a research agency make me think the brand doesn’t care enough to engage me personally

2) They always sound bored, desperate and know nothing about the topic they ask about

3) Several times, I discovered the donations to charity were not actually made, and had to chase up the company to make it

4) The questions they ask never make any sense. In fact, one gets so bored so fast you just end up saying “what was D again?” or “oh, lets say it’s A” when you can’t really recall each of the options given. As soon as that happens you realise that no only is the exercise pointless, it actually can give the company the wrong impression.

5) The benchmarking with competitors bit is plainly ludicrous: “Would you say company XXXX is better than company XXXX on supply chain engagement” and “Would you say company XXX is A) Quite good, B) Very good, C) Excellent, or D) Less than good on environmental issues compared with companies X Y or Z?”

I’ll stop here. I’ve made my point, and I feel better.

If you pay for the above, I would suggest reconsidering.

By all means research your customers, employees and others. You should, and there are lots of great methodologies for doing this.

But if anyone tells you that opinion formers can be engaged in this way, and can offer meaningful insight as a result, think again.

‘Opinion formers’, whoever that describes, will want to be engaged in two way conversation, if any, with your company.

If you don’t have the resources to do one to one engagement, then just do good, one way communication with endorsements by credible partners, and track responses via the usual monitoring channels.

In this case, doing nothing is better than doing something badly.


  1. I could not agree more with you, Tony! This is one I have endured as a recipient, and also something I have argued against when clients ask for it. Opinion Formers matter- use the time they are willing to spend talking about you to actually ENGAGE them. If its bog standard consumer research looking for large response pools, then fair enough, but if you respect someone enough to call them an opinion former, then take the time to ask them their opinion properly.

  2. Thanks Catherine. I do have some sympathy for CR teams given their budget constraints. But I wonder if some of these attempts at outreach do actually come from them. My guess is a lot of them are badly planned PR dept or comms/external affairs ideas, not benchmarked with a good head of CR.

  3. May I join the agreement club! But let's be clear: surveys are not engagement. And face-to-face engagement is expensive, especially for multinationals. We recently conducted meetings globally for our client Cisco, using its videoconferencing technology. While not cheap, it did give Cisco the opportunity to engage with 25 people in 12 continents without having to fly anyone anywhere. The participants said they liked using the technology. It saved carbon and money. It engaged.

    Peter T. Knight
    Context America.

  4. As someone who has fielded a fair share in such interviews myself, I endorse these comments 100 percent. I also note that quite a few of them mix in CR commentators with NGOs – two groups that I find often have sharply differing views.

    Complete waste of time. Frankly, every time I've ended one of those interviews, I've done so knowing that the answers I gave to those bizarre questions were of no value to anyone – never mind after you've aggregated them with a whole bunch of totally different types of people.

  5. Linda

    I agree, these kind of surveys usually only make customers irritated because you know that the person calling has no (at least in most cases) genuine interests in your answers whatsoever. Naturally, if we get the feeling that someone doesn't pay attention to what you're saying, you will most likely loose attention and concentration yourself as well. So the outcome of the result will probably not be very reliable anyways, as you said.

    I guess the companies think that they need to perform these surveys to show the customers that they care about their opinions, but who are they trying to fool? Have they never experienced a telephone survey themselves? It is as impersonal as it gets, and if the caller tries to be personal it is even worse!

    Instead of this wasting their money on unreliable surveys, they should invest them in hiring the right people working with customer feedback for their company only. It will probably be more expensive and they won't be able to "interact" with as many customers as before, but it would be more genuine and that is something that the customers would appreciate.

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