A Matter of Time

No this isn’t a physics post, but time is of great importance to marketers. Be late to the market and you will miss the sales! How we ask survey respondents about time greatly impacts the validity of the data we collect. The exhibit below asks survey participants to estimate the likelihood they will be purchasing a new vehicle in the next year. This type of forward-looking purchase intention question is common in marketing surveys.


Referring to a previous post on Likert scaling this example uses an odd-number of points which offers the respondent a safe place to land if they are not certain about the future purchase. This is a valid use case for including the middle-point in a scale. As for time, consumer behavior research informs us that major purchases usually follow a process that takes weeks, months or in some cases longer to complete. A year timeframe for a significant purchase is a reasonable window.

On the other end of the spectrum, the timeframe for less significant purchases should be shorter. Asking someone if they plan to purchase a toothbrush in the coming year will lead to near 100% agreement. However asking them how likely they are to purchase one in their next trip to the market is reasonable.

There are days when we all wish we could go back in time. We frequently ask consumers how much of something they have consumed over a defined period – How many times have you eaten at a pizza restaurant in the last three months? – is an excellent example. Rear-view questions, like their forward looking counterparts, should be tailored to the significance of the purchase or consumption behavior.

Most respondents can provide an accurate account of their behaviors for a week perhaps up to a month. After that point a significant degradation in recall occurs for most purchases. The exception would be those events of significance such as an overseas holiday, a car or new home purchase, or perhaps a major illness. In short, keep the timeframe consistent with the magnitude of the behavior.

Wrapping up this discussion there are a few other points to cover. First, major purchases require actions which precede the purchase. For example if your interest is in the likelihood to buy a new home then you should also ask “behavioral” questions such as:
1.    Have they consulted a realtor?
2.    Do they have at least 10% available for a down payment?
3.    Have they begun comparing lenders?
4.    Can they rank the importance of key attributes (e.g. number of bedrooms, age of neighborhood, etc.)?

If a consumer is serious about purchasing a home he or she will need to check these and other items off the list. Evidence of these behaviors gives more credence to their response toward purchase intent. Second, ask those that have made a purchase to estimate the amount of time it took them to complete the process. This will allow you to create norms which can be tracked over time.