Around 1978, when I was an audience researcher for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, one of the staff members from Wanganui (a small city in the North Island) told us of a huge rural show that was to be held there in a week's time. "Thousands of farmers from all over the region will be here," he said. "This is your chance to do a survey."
We tried to tell him that there was no point in doing a survey just because it was possible, but he persisted. He was enthusiastic. "The local radio station will have a stall at the show," he said. "Just print a lot of questionnaires and we'll make sure people take them."
With some misgivings, we wheeled out a bland one-page questionnaire. It included questions like:
We knew the sample wouldn't be representative, but at least the respondents might provide some thought-provoking comments. Nearly all the questions were open-ended, and we provided about three dotted lines for people to write their answers on.
We printed thousands of questionnaires (4,000, perhaps) and provided an equal number of business reply envelopes. The idea was that people could pick up a questionnaire and an envelope, take it home, fill it in, and post it back to us.
All the next week, we waited for a flood of questionnaires. It never came. At first I thought there had been some problem, that the questionnaires had never arrived in Wanganui, or that most had never been taken. But the local manager assured us that all questionnaires had been taken. So we waited. And we waited. After a month we gave up. We had just 6 questionnaires returned.
What we learned: Putting out a heap of questionnaires with a sign saying "Help yourself" is a waste of time.