Death of Telephone Surveys Exaggerated

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Telephone surveys face challenges, but aren't dead. When done right using new techniques and technologies, they still can produce reliable research results.Telephone survey research isn't dead, but it is undergoing some serious surgery. This reliable research tool faces challenges that have forced work-arounds, new techniques and partnerships.

Businesses, nonprofits and political candidates continue to rely on results produced by telephone surveys to introduce products, make decisions and craft marketing messages. However, the savviest users of research recognize the problems facing telephone surveys and are pushing pollsters to solve them.

The most obvious challenge is the exploding use of cell phones, which has led many people to abandon their landline telephones. This trend is especially prevalent among younger people and African-Americans. Failing to include cell phone users for a telephone survey can lead to a skewed sample that under-represents those cohorts.

One fix is to combine random digit dialing with a random sample of listed phone numbers. This increases the potential to reach people with unlisted or newly listed numbers, as well as cell phone users. Another strategy is to team telephone interviews with web-based interviews aimed specifically at hard-to-reach target audiences.

The next challenge is to get people to answer their phone. Caller ID allows people to filter their calls and call back only the people they want to talk with. As more people adopt the technique of not answering their phone unless they know who is calling, telephone surveys now require many more calls to achieve a representative sample. More calls translate into more time and more expense.

When pollsters get someone to pick up the phone and they agree to answer survey questions, they have learned that the window of opportunity is getting shorter. Once upon a time, respondents may have been willing to submit to an interview lasting a half hour. Nowadays, their patience peters out after 10 minutes. That means surveys must contain fewer questions and fewer complex or open-ended questions. Researchers need to exercise care to use the window of opportunity wisely, with well-crafted, clear and revealing questions.

We live in an era where people have become reliant on visual media – whether it's in the form of images or text messages. It isn't as natural as it once was to answer a series of questions on the phone. Complicating the problem, some callers employed by pollsters have accents or English is their second language. Clarity can suffer.

Despite the challenges, telephone survey can still do the job – if done right. That means insisting on a representative sample, employing new technology and techniques to reach often under-represented populations and integrating with web-based surveys. For the harried person working two jobs and trying to raise a family, responding to a telephone survey call that may come at dinnertime just isn't in the cards. A web-based survey allows those and other people to answer questions on their schedule.

The argument that counts isn't whether telephone surveys are better than their online counterparts. What matters is the skill in executing a survey to achieve high-confidence results, regardless what channel is used. Hire the research professional who is committed to getting accurate findings, not wedded to a technique or tool.