Working Paper

Toward the Development of Industry Standards for Response and Nonresponse Rates

Frederick Wiseman and Philip R. McDonald, 1980, 80-101

The growing rate of nonresponse in consumer surveys represents a problem pertinent to marketing researchers and marketing managers alike. Both those who plan and conduct consumer research—either in the sponsoring organizations or in commercial research firms—and the management people who use the resulting information have a stake in data that are reliable. More specifically, the question of whether nonrespondents differ sufficiently from respondents so as to alter survey findings meaningfully has been tested empirically to only a limited degree.

Indeed, despite considerable interest in nonresponse rates, there is an absence of generally accepted standardized definitions for what constitutes response or nonresponse. It is this matter of definitions that Professor Frederick Wiseman and Dean Philip McDonald (Northeastern University) address in this paper. In related Marketing Science Institute supported work, they have found low response rates to be more the rule than the exception. (See their MSI monograph "The Nonresponse Problem in Consumer Telephone Surveys," based on 182 surveys accounting for almost one million telephone calls.)

The authors describe current interpretations of four response and nonresponse rates-response, contact, completion, and refusal. Pointed out are the inconsistencies in meanings and terminologies employed within the marketing research fraternity. Wiseman and McDonald also report on the results of their own survey of major commercial research firms and client organizations as to the definition and calculation of various response and nonresponse rates. Using three sets of actual detailed information on contact and response in consumer surveys, they asked responding organizations to calculate the response, contact, completion, and refusal rates. The diversity of results (see Table 2) provides strong empirical evidence to support the authors' view that standardized definitions, methods of calculation, and reporting procedures are needed.

Wiseman and McDonald discuss a number of reasons why the problems exist:

  • lack of interest on the part of clients and subsequently research companies;

  • desire of some research companies to report measures which take into account constraints placed upon them in data collection;

  • lack of agreement with respect to the treatment of potential respondents whose eligibility is not determined.

The authors recommend that, in order "to achieve the goal of industry-wide standards and the subsequent monitoring of various response and nonresponse rates, a dialogue is required among users and producers of survey research data from varying disciplines in order to determine what measures will be most useful, for whom, and under what circumstances. Measurement problems must be resolved in ways that are acceptable to both users and producers." They suggest that a jointly-sponsored workshop/conference involving multiple parties and professional associations would be a useful vehicle in this regard.

(Professor) Stephen A. Greyser
Executive Director (1972-1980)

About the Authors

Frederick Wiseman is Professor of Marketing and Statistics at Northeastern University. Philip McDonald is Acting Dean and Professor of Marketing and Management at Northeastern University.

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