The “Magic” of the First Question

November 7, 2011

Survey methodology

In the market research, the first question has incredible magic. Like the first sentence in a paragraph or the first line of a movie, that first question can grab the attention or put the respondent off. In addition it can give us more and better information.

The magic of the first question is derived from the fact that at no other time will the respondent be more focused and unaffected by the survey topic.

The answers to ALL other questions are affected by that first intervention. The effect on future questions may be subtle or profound but that first question changes the answers to all other questions. That first question does so many things:

  • Tells the respondent more about what the survey is about. This could spur interest or disinterest.
  • Gets the respondent to think about the issue more deeply for future questions. He or she may try to be consistent with that earlier answer or to rationalize it.
  • Shifts the interview from a “conversation,” where respondents are just engaging with the introduction/ interviewer, to a “test” where respondents must fit what they think into the survey instrument.

The effects tend to increase over the length of the survey as respondents learn and adapt to the survey instrument. Their motivation can also change (for better or worse).

Ideally the first question should be easy to answer, engaging for the respondent, and address a core research objective.

We often see awareness, and unfortunately, screening questions at the beginning of surveys and while there is good reason for this practice greater attention needs to be paid to developing those first questions that take advantage of the unique opportunity that we have at the beginning of surveys.

You only get once chance to ask the first question. So for your next survey, make sure you get that first question right! It will set the tone for the rest of the interview.

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About Richard Jenkins

Market research professional and small business owner

View all posts by Richard Jenkins

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