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If money talks, it speaks volumes about Ciao's priorities. Sweat out a review of a well-remunerated product, assuming a few dozen reads, and you could earn a pound or two. Usually it's a lot less. If you're like me, you may have spent many hours writing and researching that review.
Fill in a survey however, and Ciao might pay you a couple of quid - or more - for 20 minutes' minimal effort.
That suggests to me that our responses to surveys matter more to Ciao than our reviews. Other evidence bears this out. The site pulls in most of its new members with the promise of earning cash for surveys. Even I still occasionally get emails with offers like "Join Ciao and win an iPod Nano". Which not only makes me wonder how aware Ciao are of my existence, but also explains why there are thousands of members who have never written a single review. When I joined Ciao, I was unaware of the survey side: in that I am probably quite unusual. For most, Ciao equals surveys.
Ciao, and its recently-arrived parent company Greenfield, use that equation to sell themselves to business clients. They make no secret of this. The Ciao Help Centre page is clear about the company's principal purpose:
"On behalf of its business customers, Ciao GmbH conducts online surveys of consumers for market research purposes... The Company serves many of the world's leading market research agencies, global FMCG companies, creative agencies and management consulting firms."
Of course, Ciao earns money in other ways. It markets us, and others who visit the site, as potential purchasers, promising rich pickings for advertisers and other sellers. Or, as Greenfield describes Ciao:
"A highly effective marketing environment for merchants and advertisers, where they can access well-informed customers in the critical moment when they are taking purchase decisions." Gives you a lovely warm feeling, doesn't it?
Surveys are thus just a part, albeit a big part, of Ciao's business. Their business-facing website is full of the ripest jargon, like "value-added, product-centred community concept" and "proprietary access panel". They want us, though, to see it as fun, fun, fun.
Therein lies their biggest challenge. Because the reality of receiving and completing their online surveys is often the opposite of fun: tedious, inconsistent and extraordinarily frustrating.
It all starts with an email in your inbox. It's usually from "Survey @ Ciao" or "Ciao Surveys". The email title hints at the subject. This can be vague - "trends" or "a new survey" - or as specific as "alcoholic beverages". The title will also state a sum of money. This will range from 70p to, in one remarkable case, the lure of up to £30 (but only if you qualified). The average payment is about £1.30 ...if you complete the survey.
And that's a very big if... The size of the promised payment is generally a good guide to whether you'll be able to complete the survey. Based on good old market forces, the more defined the target group, the higher the price. Thus the odds on you being in the target group for a £30 survey are remote; but you're much more likely to qualify for an 80p survey. If you want big survey money, I suggest you become head of IT for a major corporation: judging by the lucrative-sounding IT survey invites I get, market researchers are just gagging to know what you think.
Open the email and you'll find a link which takes you to an introductory page. This usually reminds you of your Ciao name (handy for the amnesiac and senile) and a code which, in my experience, you are almost never asked to enter at the end of the survey. One recent survey ended by asking me to enter my Ciao name and then refused to recognise it. After about a dozen tries I just gave up.
A click on a button takes you to the first page of the survey. This is branded as Ciao or one of their client market research companies. You're usually initially asked screening questions about your age, sex, family and where you live. At this point, and sometimes after answering another six or seven questions, you are usually, and infuriatingly, kicked out.
The reason, you'll be told, is that the quota for the survey has been reached, or that you do not fit their client's profile. Ciao obviously get a lot of gripes about this, because their Help Centre page patiently explains why this might happen. What they fail to explain is why, when we have all put our personal details into our Ciao profiles, we still have to go through this frustrating process. Surely, technology is sufficiently advanced to use our data to pre-screen us and prevent this waste of time.
They even say to potential clients on their website: "Besides sociodemographic data, our extensive selection criteria include personal interests, consumption behaviour, and affinities to specific products. By means of pre-screening, even very complex target groups can be reached." Who do they think are they kidding? Certainly not us poor suckers.
In October, Ciao invited me to take part in 16 surveys. On one heady day, no less than three such offers landed in my inbox. I made sure I responded as soon as I could to all of them. Out of those, I was able to complete one. In other words, 94 per cent of the invitations they sent me were mis-targeted.
The one survey that worked was about chewing gum, a perennial favourite. (If you want to know where your money goes when you buy a pack of Wrigley's, it's a fair bet that much of it pays for market research.) In other months I have completed surveys about DIY (dormer windows and laminate flooring), kids' movies and office printers.
Most surveys comprise a series of pages (sometimes up to 50). They tend to ask you to rate a range products, ask you whether you've seen a particular advert, or give your views on several competing brands or statements. All you usually have to do is click on a 'radio' button for each and press the 'next' button to go to the following page. The occasional survey does get to a certain stage then 'hang', enabling you to go neither backwards or forwards. All you can do is abandon it.
The only confusing element is that you are often repeatedly asked the same question with a slight variation. This entails some concentration to work out exactly what they're asking. The temptation is strong to start clicking randomly to get the bloody thing over with. However sense usually prevails. The fact that I am being paid does make me reasonably conscientious.
Payment usually arrives in your Ciao account within a few weeks. And apart from the above-mentioned case where my Ciao name was not recognised, this happens reliably.
My only other real moan is that quite a few surveys insist that you use Internet Explorer and/or a Windows operating system. I'm a Firefox user on a Mac, so this is particularly annoying. Even more infuriating is going down to use my daughter's Windows PC instead, logging on, retrieving the email again, starting up the survey, only to be told that invariably, I am not part of the target group.
This will all no doubt be very familiar to most people reading this. I originally summed this review up by saying "to be fair to Ciao, the proportion of functional surveys does seem to be increasing". In fact, my recent experience is that every single survey asks me a substantial number of detailed questions and then rejects me. Like many others, I just feel ripped off and taken advantage of. If Ciao carries on like this, no-one will want to take any of their surveys, which rather defeats the object.
The most you'll get from many online survey companies is entry into a prize draw. These, needless to say, never seem to pay out. Ciao surveys at least have the major advantage of paying real money, if you ever get to complete one, that is. In terms of time, effort and frustration, though, I think that's money very well-earned.
Oh, and when you finally tire of wasting your time (as you surely will), and change your account settings to no longer receive surveys, they keep on sending them. Morons.