A couple of days ago Richard Kassiasieh of Kassblog posted an interesting commentary about Markettools’ Zoomerang product in which he expressed some concern not about the functionality of the service (which he thought was pretty straightforward) but about the branding, pricing, and control one loses over data by using an outside resource.
In terms of the branding, Richard was concerned because the free version of Zoomerang ends with a message inviting respondents to use the system to create their own services, and one could argue that this would be somewhat unprofessional-looking way for a "real" company to end an exchange with a customer (although to be fair, a company that at least goes to the trouble to collect feedback from customers — even free online software — is much better than all of those companies that don’t collect any feedback at all). And to be completely fair, the paid version of Zoomerang does allow you to remove the branding.
But Richard raises a good point — if you are going to go to the trouble of collecting invaluable data from your customers, you at least owe it to yourself to use a process where you control the look and feel of the experience from beginning to end (which, I should again point out, is possible using the paid version of Zoomerang. But even there you need to make sure you change the settings appropriately and test your survey to make sure it looks exactly as you want it to look).
Richard’s second point is that services such as Zoomerang store your data on their servers. This is, of course, true for all web-based survey systems and there is no getting around it unless you only use survey software installed on your own computers that are maintained in your own facilities. You can to some degree mitigate the risk by making sure you understand the level of security and regular backup procedures of the company that you choose to use for your survey research.
Zoomerang doesn’t say precisely how your data is stored other than to indicate that information on members and panelists are stored in "secure databases" protected by passwords, and that data from surveys is stored at "a secure hosting facility with both physical and software-based security systems." For most people, this probably sounds secure enough but if you want to know more and if security really is a concern you may want to contact the provider before you start your survey.
Data retention policies are also important to consider. For example, if you use the free version of Zoomerang they say that your data will only be saved for 10 days following the start of the survey. The impression I get is that they do retain it longer than that and it can be accessed again if you sign up for a paid account, but it is always important to understand the data retention policies before you get started as well as whether or not it will be easy for you to download your data in a managable format when you are finished. Richard expressed concern that Zoomerang only allows a flat file format — well, I think for most people that is probably enough. There are a few services that will allow you to download your survey into a relational file format (such as an Access data file), but these services tend to cost more and frankly I’m not sure what most researchers would ever do with the data in that format anyways. SPSS takes only flat files.
Finally Richard raises the question of cost and why there aren’t more open-source alternatives. He speaks the truth when he notes that survey software isn’t really that hard to write and to that I really don’t have that much of an answer. I imagine it will happen eventually.