Do County Fairs offer a Good Place for Survey Research?

CST Director Roger Rose and political science Professor Tim Lindbergh comment on “the promises and problems of county fair survey work” from their experiences with a survey research project at county fairs in Minnesota last summer.

Surveys of public opinion among residents of Greater Minnesota are uncommon. The major exception is the Blandin Foundation Rural Pulse survey, conducted approximately every three years. This high-quality phone survey, however, would be prohibitively expensive for smaller organizations like the Center for Small Towns (CST) to emulate. Moreover, alternatives such as The American Community Survey by the Census Bureau or state-wide polling done by professional firms, all too frequently offer limited data on rural residents on a limited set of questions.

CST staff, inspired by the University of Minnesota’s D2D research station at the Minnesota State Fair, spent the summer of 2016 conducting surveys across Greater Minnesota’s county fairs, with a goal of creating an affordable, annual, short survey on rural issues and rural life.

To get to the punch line: Our hopes for a new, useful survey environment of Greater Minnesota were not met. County fairs proved to be difficult environments for obtaining a representative sample of regional residents and we would not recommend this approach for other organizations, unless for specific purposes that complement ongoing plans to be part of a county fair. For details on what CST attempted and what happened to our “best laid plans,” please read on (or head over to our CST Report at our archive.)

 

The goal: An affordable, annual survey of the region. CST has a long track record of conducting surveys for communities and organizations in the West Central region. But we have found that, aside from the Blandin Foundation’s Rural Pulse survey, more general, good quality data on people’s behaviors and attitudes in Greater Minnesota is hard to find. Given the relative success the University of Minnesota has doing surveys at the Minnesota State Fair, why not test out the possibility that county fairs might also prove hospitable for useful data collection. (We believe that the state fair is not a good place to collect regional, particularly rural, data, given the high costs of using the UM venue and the high numbers of Metro Area visitors.)

Thus, CST staff and students went out to six different county fairs in West Central, Southwest, Central and Northwest Minnesota with a short survey on quality of life, rural policy issues, and community engagement. The effort generated almost 200 responses, with 178 coming from rural MN residents and it did give us a limited “snapshot” of the public’s view on topics of interest and concern to rural Minnesota – quality of community life, the future of rural communities, views of key issues confronting the region and the level of civic involvement.

What’s good about surveying at county fairs? County fairs would seem to offer a useful location for gathering fairly representative data. In many rural Minnesota counties, the annual fair is one of, if not the biggest, gathering of people each year. Unlike the Minnesota State Fair, most attendees are from local communities, or at least live within the immediate region. These fairs are also relatively compact and crowded events, which should allow for attracting the “typical” fair-goer. Finally, the costs of entrance are low, with most fairs charging just a nominal fee to reserve space for conducting a survey. So far, so good.

 

What turned out not to be so good about county fairs? At the six fairs that CST staff and student workers visited last July and August (Becker, Hubbard, Pipestone, Sibley, Stevens and Swift), we confronted numerous challenges and limitations to generating a good quality sample. On the plus side, the nearly 200 respondents to our survey were representative in terms of the racial, political, and age characteristics of the broader communities we sampled from. But they were also some of the most engaged, well-off, politically interested, and stable residents of rural Minnesota. This is obviously not a complete picture—no matter how much we believe our Greater Minnesota residents are more engaged in their communities.

The main problems for survey staff: (1) constraints of the fairs—ie. the location within and the large time commitment; (2) the nature of people who will answer surveys at fairs, and, (3) yes, the weather.

Location & Time: In the quest to be affordable, we sent survey teams to each county fair for only one day (except for the local Stevens County fair). We did consult with the fair organizers about which days and what times were most heavily attended, but that “prime” day turned out not to be enough to reach our goal of 75-100 completed surveys per fair. Further, the “short” time contributed to getting a poor location at the fair. Fair organizers, understandably, give priority booth locations to those who were going to be active for the entire length of the 2 or 3 day fair. We “short timers” ended up towards the back or side of exhibition space, and some fairs would not permit staff to leave their area to recruit subjects.

The People who Attend Fairs and Take Surveys: The subset of individuals at the county fairs may not be the best representation of the overall county/community population. People at fairs are generally quite proud of their county and communities—indeed, they are attending the main celebration of their community! So it was little surprise that our respondents were highly engaged and quite content with their communities. Consider also who is most likely to spend time in an exhibition hall and to take an in-person survey at a county fair. Women were especially approachable and willing to respond to the initial request to take a survey. In contrast, many attendees with children or with time constraints stayed clear of our entreaties.

The Weather: It’s also worth noting that rainy weather, at least at one county fair, dramatically reduced attendance. This is particularly problematic when spending just one day at a given fair.

So what’s a survey researcher to do? Recommendations.

Given the range of challenges we faced in this project, we would caution other researchers against using county fairs as a way to administer surveys intended for a broader population. But should your organization have good reasons for conducting research at a fair, we would make the following recommendations (in no particular order):

  • Attend a fair for its full duration. This will ensure both a better location and a more thorough sampling of fair attendees.
  • Have surveyors who are strongly outgoing and willing to actively recruit respondents.
  • Keep your survey or interview instrument short and clear. Many fair attendees are unwilling or unable to sit/stand to sit through a survey of significant length.
  • Find creative ways to ensure a balance of respondents by age, gender, and particularly race.
  • Use clear and interesting signage for your project. Make sure people know WHY they should stop and talk to you.
  • If using incentives, make sure they appeal to a broad range of potential respondents. We used drawstring bags (with UMM logos), pens, and candy, with varying success.

Finally, given the practical issues of conducting research at a fair, organizations may wish to consider using fairs only to sign up subjects for a future, possibly online questionnaire. We had some success encouraging those who had no time to fill out a survey, to share an email address with us. Of course, a long list of email addresses may yield only a small number of respondents later.

Despite the limitations CST faced working across a set of county fairs, we recognize that organizations, such as a health cooperative or local government, have specific purposes for participating at fairs. Under these conditions, it may make very good sense to conduct more focused research that complements already existing plans to be part of county fair. Despite the constraints, county fairs present a nice opportunity to gather data from a local, mostly representative population and to connect with engaged members of communities. But organizations need to be patient and to be ready to put in sufficient time across the span of a fair.

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