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Death of Telephone Surveys Exaggerated

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.

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The Sample Matters, Not Just the Tool

The Washington Post gave readers an informative glimpse into the debate raging among research professionals over the use of "opt-in Internet survey data," or what we call panel research.

Using databases, as opposed to randomly selected samples, is not new or even exceptional. Organizations that have collected email addresses from customers, patients and stakeholders use panel research on a routine basis to measure everything from customer satisfaction to reactions to advertising to introductions of new products and services.

The qualms over panel research center on its application to public-opinion polling. Traditional researchers believe telephone surveys remain the gold standard and web-based surveys remain untested. Like The Washington Post and New York Times, we respectfully disagree.

The national newspapers use YouGov polling, which relies on representative panels drawn from huge databases. Participants opt in to the panel through an online survey. But the pollsters in charge manage the panel's profile to match the "public" being measured, whether it is the national electorate or likely voters in an Ohio congressional district.

We conduct online research using panels for both market and public-opinion research. Ensuring a representative sample of participants is important whether you are relying on a proprietary database or drawing from databases that you lease. 

Soliciting panel participants from leased databases through email is not all that different than drawing a random sample of phone numbers to call on the telephone. Both generally work on the principle of probability. The skill and integrity of polling comes from making sure wherever your sample comes from, it accurately reflects the constituency you are trying to poll

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Health Care Embraces Panel Research

Hospitals and health systems are embracing new ways to improve patient engagement and communication by using panel-based research techniques.

The way people communicate is changing rapidly. Almost all households have access to the Internet. Smartphone and tablet use is widespread. Patients want to communicate with service organizations they trust and they want to do it at times that are convenient for them. Panel research allows this to happen.

Panel research uses web-based research tools. Customers are invited by email to participate in online surveys. Participants are asked if they want to continue to participate in future research. Typically, 60 to 70 percent say yes. This group forms the panel for future research.

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The Conversation Survey

An intentional series of one-on-one conversations can be a great source of information and insight. Even though it is among the cheapest forms of research, conversation surveys often are only an afterthought.

Unlike telephone or online surveys that center on questions with multiple-choice answers, one-on-one conversations are based on open-ended conversations. The whole idea is to start a conversation, not get an answer.

Skilled researchers guide the conversation through a series of pre-determined questions, but allow the conversation to find its own parameters and depth. Skillful conversation guides know how to keep the conversation going without skewing it in any particular direction by inserting their own views.

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Stress Is a Fact of Life

An NPR survey explores the extent and sources of stress, which is clearly a fact of many of our daily lives.If it seems as if a lot of people are stressed out, it may be because they are.

A survey conducted earlier this year by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health revealed almost half of the 2,500 adult respondents said they had experienced a major stress in the past year. More than 25 percent said they had been under severe stress the previous month.

Survey results showed the people feeling the most stress were in poor health, disabled or suffering from chronic conditions. Other significant sources of stress are problems at work, life changes, family issues and personal relationships gone sour.

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