The accelerating switch from landline to mobile phones is undermining the ability of traditional telephone surveys to capture accurate reflections of many target groups, from young shoppers to likely voters.
As anyone watching the just completed 2012 London Olympics could readily tell, mobile phones are omnipresent. Recent data indicates more than half of all Americans with mobile phones have smartphones, which opens an expanding world of smartphone apps. More than a quarter of all smartphone users say they would rather surrender their computer than their smartphone.
That doesn't bode well for landline phones, which don't have cameras and games, and has caused pollsters to scramble to adjust.
Because the demographics of smartphone users differ from the mix of landline phone users, pollsters are having to juggle their samples. In an article last week, The New York Times reported that veteran GOP and Democratic pollsters who conduct surveys for NBC News/Wall Street Journal decided to increase their percentage of exclusive mobile phone users to 30 percent of their overall sample.
The Times reported other polling firms supplement traditional telephone surveys with online surveys in an attempt to capture the same variable demographic of mobile phone users.
Mark Mellman, who polls for Democratic candidates, told the Times, "That group is not only younger, but also attitudinally different from other people of all ages." Mellman said they are "disproportionately urban, African-American, on either the high or low side of the economic ladder and Democratic."
While it is legal to make randomly selected polling calls to landline phones, regulations prevent such calling on cell phones.
"I have yet to see a standard that I believe is anything more than a guesstimate," Republican pollster Whit Ayres admitted to the Times. Ayres predicted the research industry would eventually shift more toward Web-based surveys.
CFM is already well-versed in this conversion. Yes, we still conduct telephone surveys. However, we counsel that Web-based surveys using representative and large databases can produce equally reliable results, with the added benefit of enabling ongoing engagement with a panel of respondents.
"The switch from landlines to cell phones has made research professionals rethink how we gather credible information," says CFM partner Tom Eiland. "Out of that reflection has emerged a powerful tool that can do much more than take a snapshot in time of customer and voter perceptions."
The 2012 election, with a tight presidential race, is focusing a huge light on research techniques in a world, as Mellman says, "where small differences make a big difference."
"The struggle to get election polls right this year hopefully will illuminate the problems of traditional research techniques," Eiland says, "and open people's eyes to promising techniques such as Web-based panel research, which we've proven as a credible replacement, with much more upside as an engagement tool."