Spontaneous questions in the questionnaire

A spontaneous question is any question for which the respondent is not given a repertoire of possible answers from which to choose. All open- ended questions are by their nature spontaneous, but not all spontaneous questions need be open-ended.

Spontaneous questions will be used when the questionnaire writer does not know what the range of responses is likely to be, or wants to collect the response in the respondent’s own words. These will then be open-ended questions with the response recorded verbatim for later coding.

The decision whether or not to make a spontaneous question open- ended depends on whether it is important to record the response verba­tim and whether the full range, or at least the majority, of likely responses is known.

One of the difficulties with spontaneous questions is that the amount of effort that respondents are prepared to make with spontaneous questions varies depending on how interested they are in the subject and on the medium of the interview.

1. Common uses of spontaneous questions

Spontaneous open questions are frequently used in market research to measure awareness and attitudes, for example:

  • brand awareness;
  • awareness of brands seen advertised;
  • recall of brands or products used or bought;
  • advertising content recall;
  • attitudes towards a product, or activity or situation;
  • likes and dislikes of a product or concept.

The first three in this list would normally be pre-coded on an interviewer- administered questionnaire, where the interviewers can easily code the response without prompting the respondents.

With spontaneous questions we are trying to determine what is at the forefront of people’s minds; information which they can easily access. We interpret this as saliency in the case of brands, or as importance in the case of attitudes. Spontaneous questions are not a good measure of all of the brands people have heard of, nor of behaviour, nor of all the full range of attitudes or emotions. Prompted questions usually elicit more complete and accurate responses in terms of behaviour.

2. Spontaneous brand awareness

Spontaneous brand awareness is a measure of which brands are the most salient in the respondents’ minds. It would be the result of the following or similar questioning: ‘Which brands of breakfast cereal have you heard of?’ The objective here is to obtain every brand that the respondent can think of, and so probes asking for ‘What else?’ or ‘Any more?’ will be used extensively in interviewer-administered interviews. The list of possible brands will usually be given as pre-codes on the questionnaire for the interviewer to record responses.

Frequently the first brand mentioned will be recorded separately, to give a measure of ‘top of mind awareness’.

With self-completion questionnaires (including web-based), sponta­neous questions must be recorded as open-ended responses to avoid prompting the respondents. With paper self-completion questionnaires, it is not possible to obtain spontaneous awareness if any brands are mentioned anywhere in the questionnaire. Respondents will read through the questionnaire and will be prompted by any brand names that appear.

Sometimes we wish to know precisely how respondents refer to a brand. Then, in any data collection medium, the responses will be recorded verba­tim. The researcher can then determine whether it is the brand, sub-brand or variant that is mentioned, or what combination of these. This is particu­larly used in advertising research where it can be important to know precisely what level of branding is being communicated.

Spontaneous brand awareness is subject to the effort that respondents are prepared to make. This can vary according to where the interview takes place. It has been demonstrated on numerous occasions that the average number of brands that are given spontaneously in face-to-face street interviews is significantly lower than with face-to-face in-home interviews. Not only is the average number lower in the street, but the distribution of the brands mentioned is also different. In the street, where less effort is made, the dominant brands in a market will tend to be mentioned. Their spontaneous brand awareness figures may be similar to those obtained from in-home interviews. The smaller and newer brands get lower prompted awareness levels from street interviews, or in any type of interview where the respondent is prepared to make less effort.

3. Spontaneous advertising awareness

When evaluating the effect of an advertising campaign, spontaneous advertising awareness is usually a key measure. Exactly how this is meas­ured, though, differs between researchers.

One way is to ask spontaneous brand awareness first, followed by a spontaneous awareness of brands seen advertised, followed by content recall of the advertising claimed to have been seen. All questions require spontaneous responses; the first two are likely to be pre-coded with a list of brands, and the third question will be open-ended:

‘Which brands of breakfast cereal have you heard of?’

‘Which brands of breakfast cereal have you seen or heard advertis­ing for recently?’

‘What did the advertising say, or what was it about?’

Repeat the last question for all brands for which advertising has been seen.

An alternative approach is not to ask brand awareness first, but to ask the respondent to recall spontaneously any advertising for any brand in the category:

‘Please describe to me any advertising that you have seen recently for a breakfast cereal. What did it say? What was it about?’

‘What brand was that for?’

Repeat until the respondent can recall no more advertising.

‘Please tell me any other brands of breakfast cereal that you have seen advertising for.’

Proponents of this approach argue that, by leading with the brand recall in the first approach, the best-known brands score well as respondents assume that they have seen advertising for them, whether or not they have actually been advertising. By leading with advertising content recall, without mentioning any brands, the second approach claims to attain a truer measure of memorability of the advertising.

4. Spontaneous attitudinal questions

Spontaneous questions regarding attitudes can be either open-ended or pre-coded. Typical spontaneous attitudinal questions are:

  • ‘What, if anything, do you like about.?’
  • ‘What, if anything, do you dislike about.?’
  • ‘How do you feel about.?’
  • ‘Please describe to me your feelings about.?’

The responses to these questions would most likely be recorded verbatim as open-ended answers. This enables the capture of the full range of answers in the code frame, which may include some that were not antici­pated. This also allows the researcher to see the precise language used by respondents to describe their feelings and attitudes.

Preliminary qualitative research may have been carried out so that the full range of attitudes held on the issue in question has been determined. The study may be a repeat of a previous one in which the attitudes were defined. In these cases summaries of the main attitudes may be pre-coded on interviewer-administered questionnaires, in order to save the time and expense of coding the responses at the analysis stage. With any kind of self-completion questionnaire pre-coding is not a possibility if the atti­tudes are to be expressed spontaneously.

Source: Brace Ian (2018), Questionnaire Design: How to Plan, Structure and Write Survey Material for Effective Market Research, Kogan Page; 4th edition.

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