The Survey Platform 2.0
Surveys are great for scientific progress — but only with enough participants. With his platform SurveyCircle Jonas Johé is dedicated to finding the right participants for students, researchers, and startups – and has also discovered a market niche in the process. We met up for an interview with this business economist, marketing expert, and Mannheim resident, in the bauteil.b coworking space.
Hi Jonas. Just like Airbnb, your project SurveyCircle is all about connecting people. Though in your case they meet up in the context of online studies.
Indeed. And while we do connect people, the comparison with Airbnb is not quite fitting. Airbnb strictly separates the people offering space, the supply side, and the people that pay money to rent the space, the demand side. Those on the side of supply, and those on the side of demand, have different objectives.
In contrast, everyone on SurveyCircle has the same objective: they want participants for their empirical studies! And to make this work everyone also takes part as a participant in other studies within the platform. So, in the end, every researcher is both part of supply, and demand. SurveyCircle is less Airbnb, and more – in the broadest sense – a Couchsurfing for researchers, or perhaps a Stack Overflow for recruiting survey participants.
Sure, that makes sense. When did you see a demand for a site such as SurveyCircle?
Well, while working on my empirical Master’s thesis, I myself needed participants. Likewise, during my time at university I often heard cries for help, by people that still needed many participants to get a large enough sample size.
When sourcing participants for a survey, things will usually take off fine, but once the pool of friends and relatives has been drained, things start to get tricky.
Sounds exhausting to find enough participants!
It really is! When I was sourcing participants for my Master’s thesis I actually had webcam covers produced as an incentive. Those are little stickers you use to cover up the webcam on your computer. I had a call for participation printed on the stickers. I passed them out to fellow students in all of the libraries. My little campaign actually worked out quite well, but one can’t expect every undergraduate or postgraduate student to have freebies produced in order for their studies to work. Besides, if everyone tried to do it … it would lose all effect in the end anyway.
In any case, it was clear that many people needed larger samples sizes for their research projects, which presented a real challenge. Be it for Bachelor’s theses, Master’s theses, or dissertations: there is a constant demand for study participants, to achieve meaningful results.
Before we started SurveyCircle, though, there was no place to find participants through a controlled process. My thought was: „We all need participants for our studies, so why don’t we all make ourselves available as participants, and help each other out?“ I then found a few groups on Facebook and Xing that were trying to provide something similar. Their approach was promising, but these groups couldn’t offer the necessary framework conditions for an efficient and well-structured research participant recruitment process.
There are countless platforms online, but something like SurveyCircle was not to be found. This was strange to me, as one always feels as if the Internet has everything imaginable online already. I googled around and found nothing comparable to the concept, so the next big question was how we could create the right system to offer a functioning and efficient platform where mutual support among researchers really worked.
What was the key idea?
I wanted to ensure that those that give the most help, will also receive the most help. This led to the ranking system that rewards participation.
Please elaborate …
Sure. Let’s say you’re a student, or a prospective founder, and are planning a survey. You are using some kind of survey software to set everything up and are now on the search for participants. The first step would be signing up online with SurveyCircle – name, country, email … and you’re ready to go! At this point, you can post your survey, which will be entered into our ranking system, the so-called Survey Ranking. The Survey Ranking looks a bit like the Premier League table: studies with few points are on the bottom, and those with a lot are on top. The more you participate in other studies, the more points your own study will gather. The further up your study is ranked, the more points others receive for participating.
So the further up a study is ranked, the larger the appeal to participate?
Exactly. This allows you to control the influx of participants. The more you help others, the more help you get.
So you guys basically created a form of currency with the points on SurveyCircle.
We don’t really see it as a currency, but more as a digital karma for helpfulness. Your readiness to help is represented by your score. This special incentive mechanism ensures that studies with high scores secure their participants the quickest.
Are you also active abroad?
In the summer of 2016, we launched in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, since we speak the language and know the academic landscape in these countries. Six months later, we created the English version of the site and launched in nine other countries. With only one additional language, this allowed us to handle a large sector of additional users. By now, we also operate in Belgium and the Netherlands.
How many surveys are online?
Overall we have hosted over 3,500 surveys. So far this year, we peaked at around 450 surveys on the platform simultaneously. The number of active surveys always fluctuates. This is largely in part due to the course of the semester. By the middle of the semester, the largest number of studies are online. By the end of the semester, many surveys are over, while the next wave has not yet been posted.
What subjects do the surveys deal with?
They deal with all sorts of different subjects. We have surveys ranging from sports science, all the way to information technology. Though, as was to be expected, we see a main focus on surveys in psychology and business administration. What is also pretty cool, is that many start-ups have used our platform to test business ideas. Though the fact that SurveyCircle can also be used for market research is still under the radar. We still need to promote this advantage even more.
Sounds quite time consuming …
Yeah. I really don’t have much time to spare. Staying in shape is especially difficult. In retrospect, I would tell myself to cancel my gym membership once I decided to get into the start-up. The seasonal license plate for my bike was not of much use either. But, whenever the weather allows it, I enjoy riding my motorcycle to the Mafinex.
Another thing regarding marketing: Do you directly contact the universities to promote your site?
We do. The sooner anyone knows about our platform, the more they can actively profit from what we offer. The best way to get into things is registering a few weeks, or even months, ahead of posting your own survey, to participate in other studies beforehand, in order to get some points on your scorecard (e.g. in the semester vacations). This way, once you post your own study, it will hit the ranking in a good spot.
We want to get the concept across that registering early is good for everyone — users shouldn’t wait until the last minute.
Can one sell points?
No. But if you sign up as a Research Enthusiast, while not posting any own surveys, you can send your points to other users. This works similarly to PayPal – but with points instead of money. This allows people to support friends or family members in achieving a good ranking, and then finding participants faster. You can also send points to researchers whose projects appeal to you. Having users on the platform that are solely participants also assures a more heterogeneous user base.
You studied with a focus on marketing yourself?
My bachelor was in International Business at the University of Cooperative Education (DHBW) in Mannheim, and consisted of general business studies with additional international components. For example, we had courses in Chinese over six semesters. By now I have forgotten most of it, but it was a great help during my practical semester in Shanghai.
While studying you lived in Mannheim?
Yes. I moved here for the university. The bachelor program at the DHBW was great, and I really enjoyed the mix of theoretical and hands-on elements. I also spent a semester in the US, which was a great experience.
However, I was always interested in research and science. So I knew I would want to be at a more research-driven university for my Master’s studies.
Did you start your master program right after the bachelor?
I worked as a Marketing Communications Manager for Evonik for three years following my bachelor’s degree. The job was very multi-faceted, and fit in well with my own interests. And funnily enough, my biggest project at Evonik was developing an online platform for the company. It was also a significant project for me, personally.
And then it was 2012 and … ?
… I applied at the University of Mannheim. Mannheim has really become a special place to me. So once I got a confirmation for the „Mannheim Master in Management“ program, I didn’t think twice.
Today you are still in Mannheim. What brought SurveyCircle to the „bauteil.B“ coworking space in the Mafinex Technology Center?
Once I decided to really pursue the SurveyCircle idea, I spent a few months working from home. My coffee table became my desk, which is of questionable ergonomic standards, but was my only choice at the time. After that I alternated between home and the library, which was better, but after a while I craved a real workspace.
I think it was an email newsletter that introduced me to bauteil.B. It was really new at the time, and I really liked what they had done with the space. I met up with Paul in bauteil.B in February. He showed me everything and I signed the rental contract. Since March, I have my „Fix Desk“ here, a permanent place of work with 24/7 access to the building, which comes in pretty handy.
My favorite thing about bauteil.B is the sense of community. We have table tennis matches and great communication, not only about work. I think that is the biggest advantage to working from home.
Many thanks for this interview!
Interview: Paul Heesch / LA.MAG Content. Corporate. Communication.
Photos: Ricardo Wiesinger