This article was published in the Marketing Research Association's magazine, Alert!  To access the published version of the article click here.

By: Ricardo A. López - President, Hispanic Research Inc.

By now everyone has heard about the growth of the U.S. Hispanic population, and many companies are now including Latinos in their research plans.  The research industry has eagerly responded with an unprecedented number of companies offering Hispanic research services.  This is a positive development.  When I started suggesting the inclusion of Latinos in general market research in the mid 80s my clients thought I was crazy; and I probably was, because there were very limited options back then for appropriately fielding a Latino survey.  Things have changed!   Or… have they?  Today almost every big player (and many smaller ones) claims to have the ability to conduct Hispanic market research.   The problem is that research companies are surveying Latinos using the same “proven” process that has been established to be successful and appropriate for general market studies.  There is ample evidence, however, that conducting research with Latinos using this “proven” approach is yielding invalid research data.  This article explores the reasons behind the Latino research validity problems and suggests ways to improve Hispanic data collection.

In order to understand how Latinos respond to surveys we need to appreciate the cultural differences between Hispanics and non-Hispanics.  A lot can be said regarding the fact that the “Hispanic community” is really a U.S. marketing invention that was fueled by our industry’s eagerness to classify individuals who did not fit well into our standard classification categories.  After all, Hispanics come from as many as 20 different countries of origin and include individuals of every race (Hispanic is not a race – see my blog entry Let's stop Segmenting People by Race).  However, there is no denying that most Latinos share a common language as well as certain cultural characteristics and values that unite them as a group; and many Hispanics in this country have come to identify themselves with –their– “Hispanic community.”   These commonalities are what set Latinos apart as a market segment and make them different from non-Hispanics.  Let us take a closer look at the Hispanic/non-Hispanic differences and why they affect data collection methods and data validity.

Many Hispanics are new immigrants who were born outside of the U.S. and are not as familiar with opinion polls and survey research.  Opinion research is such a big part of our American society that we take it for granted that respondents know about surveys and polls; but in most of Latin America consumers are not as exposed to marketing research as we are in the U.S.  Many Latinos approach survey questions as if it were an academic exam or a government form because this is their only frame of reference.  In that mindset, the Latino respondent struggles to come up with the correct answers to the survey questions.  Logically, giving the wrong answer always has negative ramifications when completing tests or government forms.  In researching Latinos, especially unacculturated new immigrants, great care must be taken in explaining the research process.

Not being familiar with surveys has other consequences as well.  Again, in our industry’s American mentality we take many things for granted.  For example, we assume that people are familiar with the concept of a number scale.  When asked to rate something on a scale of 1 to 10, many new Latino immigrants will select either 1 or 10 because they do not know that they are allowed to use numbers in between.  Education also plays an important role in the respondent’s ability to complete a complicated survey instrument; and U.S. Latinos as a group have a lower educational level than non-Hispanics.  Another factor that creates confusion in Spanish language surveys is the language used in the Spanish translation.  Very often researchers purposely instruct translators to translate a survey verbatim because it has to be exactly the same as the English version to avoid interpretation errors.   The problem is that this always yields a very awkward and confusing question narrative that often results in more significant data errors.  Some words are even impossible to translate because they do not exist in Spanish.  The word “parent” is a good example.  In Spanish we say either “mother” or “father” and do not have a word for “parent.”  Other language concerns include differences in some of the Spanish words used to describe the same object depending on the Latino country of origin; but these concerns are not as important as the overall survey communication approach.

Hispanics generally communicate differently from how non-Hispanics interact.  Latinos usually prefer a more informal/emotional communication approach.  In interacting with each other Latinos strive to connect at an emotional level before any exchange of information takes place.  This tendency transcends all communication topics.  Even in commerce, Latin Americans often do business by befriending each other first, and then work out the details after the deal is practically sealed.  Latino communication relies heavily on non-verbal gestures, tangents, and storytelling.  Hispanics connect with each other by avoiding structure.  The communication thrives when it takes place in a typical Latino laid-back setting; and only then do Latinos feel comfortable in expressing their true feelings and opinions.  A rigid structure brings out again the feeling of governmental or academia communication.  As can be surmised, the way Latinos prefer to interact is the antithesis of how quantitative research communication is normally structured.

Cultural issues are also significant contributors to Hispanic research error biases.  The Latino tendency to “be nice” in answering survey questions is culturally based.  Once a Hispanic respondent agrees to the research interview, he or she usually feels compelled to do his or her best to be respectful to the interviewer and to not offend the sponsor by giving negative opinions.  The Latino behavior when it comes to propriety and respect can be significantly different to that of non-Hispanics.  Hispanics place a lot of weight on teaching their children the value of respect; and they often engage in respect-induced cultural rituals that would seem ridiculous to non-Hispanics.  The popular crossover phrase “mi casa es su casa” (my house is your house) is a prime example of this attitude.  It is not unusual for Latinos to introduce themselves to a stranger by adding the words “a servant” after their name.  From a research standpoint this cultural affinity results in Latino respondents working very hard to answer the questions according to what they think the interviewer or research sponsor wants to hear.  The issue is greatly compounded when Latinos are receiving an incentive honorarium for their responses because they then feel even more compelled to “be nice.”

The science of statistics dictates that in order to avoid errors in the data, all questions need to be asked to all survey respondents in exactly the same manner without any deviation or interviewer interpretation.  Field companies take great care in training interviewers to only repeat the question if it was not understood by the respondent and to take only a response that exactly matches one of the alternative answers given in the survey.  Rephrasing and interpretation is not considered appropriate.  When conducting Hispanic quantitative research this practice can be extremely frustrating to the Latino respondent and often results in serious validity issues that dwarf the interviewer bias errors that we are trying to control.  The problem is so pervasive that it affects the majority of all Latino surveys being conducted.  Here is a typical scenario that one may witness when monitoring a Latino survey.

INTERVIEWER: Which of the following would you say is your favorite color?  Is it white, green, blue, yellow, or red?

RESPONDENT:  Oh that’s a good question!  I think my preference comes from when I was a little girl.  I remember that my grandfather use to take us out every Saturday for ice cream in his bright red truck.  I have such good memories of how that truck would shine in the sun!  It really makes me feel good about the color.

INTERVIEWER:  Then, which of the following would you say is your favorite color?  Is it white, green, blue, yellow, or red?

RESPONDENT:  Well… just as I said before.

INTERVIEWER:  Ok, is it white, green, blue, yellow, or red?


INTERVIEWER:  Is that your answer?

RESPONDENT:  Yes, I guess…

What happened here?  The Hispanic respondent was communicating in a typical Latino fashion using tangents and storytelling.  She thought she was being perfectly clear in her response and did not understand why the interviewer refused to take her answer.  She could only guess that the interviewer was hinting that her answer may not be what they want to hear.  She changed the answer in order to please the interviewer.  The frustration felt by the respondent in this interaction would have also affected the rest of the survey.

Some survey research methodologies are more effective than others in obtaining the Latino opinion.  As you can gather by now, the more personal the interaction, the more effective the survey is in engaging Hispanic respondents.   This means that in-person administered interviews generally work the best; followed by interviewer-administered phone interviews.  Computer administered phone interviews and self-administered online surveys are not as effective because they are considered impersonal and “too structured” for the way most Latinos prefer to communicate.  Self administered paper surveys are by far at the end of the effectiveness spectrum and should be avoided when interviewing un-acculturated Hispanics.  

There are many other issues that affect the effectiveness of Hispanic market data collection.  Here are a few other areas of concern:

  • Sampling accuracy often suffers because of the Latino tendency to live in households with many family members, their transitional or legal status, and their propensity for not having a phone registered in their name.  Many sample companies do not have a good representation of un-acculturated Latinos.
  • Demographics that are commonly collected in general market surveys do not necessarily have the same connotation when interviewing Hispanics.  Income, for example, is usually problematic because many have difficulty understanding the concept of household income.  They often live in large households that not only house what we would consider the immediate family, but also other family members like aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents.  Not only do respondents not know what their other family members make, the whole concept of household income becomes meaningless for comparison purposes.  Income is also not a good measure of Latino social status because many highly educated new immigrants have disproportionably low income levels, and others with very low education may earn high incomes in demanding blue collar jobs.
  • Many companies translate open ended responses and then code those responses in English.  This practice results in significant coding errors.  Coding should be conducted in Spanish and then the codes can be translated into English.
  • Homework, diaries, and other heavily structured or complicated exercises do not work well with Latinos and should be avoided.

While the research industry has responded to the demand for Hispanic research data collection, it has failed to do its homework and is acting on the assumption that the industry’s “proven” research practices also apply to Latino survey research; but yet, they do not.  As an industry we have the responsibility to adapt the research process in order to improve Latino data validity.  A basic understanding of the Latino culture is necessary to effectively conduct research with Hispanics.  We must adapt our approach and not act blindly thinking that we can merely translate a questionnaire, use a Spanish speaking interviewer, and achieve good results.


  • Understand that Latinos communicate differently and that their cultural background affects the way they respond to a survey.  Having Hispanic staff managers that understand the Latino culture helps in avoiding the pitfalls of working under false assumptions and misconceptions.
  • Allow interviewers to communicate in a Latino style.  Brief them on the purpose of the research so that they can prevent the introduction of interviewer bias while allowing for Latino storytelling and interviewer interpretation.  Build the extra time required into the cost structure.
  • In the questionnaire design, take some time to explain up-front the importance of total honesty in their responses and how “being nice” means giving negative responses, if warranted.  Design instruments that use simple ordinary language, and avoid complicated scales, grids, or responses that require percentage summation.  Also avoid complicated homework assignments or structured diaries.
  • For Spanish surveys the questionnaire should be either written in Spanish first (if the interviews will be conducted only in Spanish) or translated by a research professional who understands the importance of maintaining the same meaning while making it flow correctly.  Do not insist on a verbatim translation that can result in more detrimental data errors because of language misunderstanding.
  • Use Spanish speaking coders to code Spanish open-ended responses.
  • Test the questionnaire thoroughly with Latino respondents and monitor closely to identify potential cultural issues that may be affecting the Latino responses.


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