Four Key Reasons to use Telephone Surveys
Despite the increased popularity of internet surveys on platforms such as SurveyMonkey and Typeform, telephone surveys continue to be used for data collection by the Office for National Statistics and Ipsos Mori, in addition to many market research agencies. Telephone surveys can provide researchers with a method of recording complex answers from respondents in a cost-effective and reliable way.
Telephone surveys offer many advantages either conducted on their own or in conjunction with another survey method. A UK study on behalf of the Cabinet Office suggests that online data collection on its own is unlikely to achieve a response rate of over 25%, and that figure could only be achieved through offering an incentive. In addition, postal and online modes of surveying carry a risk of self-selection bias, with research showing that approximately one in four questionnaires is completed by someone who is not the respondent.
At Mackman Research, we use online surveys in conjunction with telephone surveys as a tried and tested methodological approach which ensures excellent response rates whilst allowing for in-depth data collection. We highly recommend that you use the services of a specialist research or data collection firm to conduct a telephone survey, if possible. Attempting to conduct a telephone survey in-house is a time-consuming and intensive endeavour that requires a lot of resources. This article explores the reasons that telephone research has remained a reliable method of mass data collection.
An Introduction to Telephone Surveys
From the 1940s to the 1970s, postal and face-to-face surveys constituted the main methods of data collection. Telephone surveys quickly became more popular as telephone coverage increased, the comparatively low cost of telephone surveys as opposed to face-to-face interviews, and the speed at which respondents can be contacted. This led to the advent of Random Digital Dialling, or RDD, which gave researchers the ability to sample all households with a telephone. Moving into the 1990s, internet surveys began to emerge, which rivalled telephone surveys in terms of their speed and economic advantages, but due to issues with internet coverage (and therefore how representative these surveys were), telephone surveys remained a popular method of data collection. In the 21st century, it is now easier than ever to contact people by telephone – according to Statista, 94% of UK adults own a mobile phone (up from 82% in 2005).
In recent years, telephone calls from unknown numbers, particularly on landline numbers, have become the object of suspicion due to ‘cold calls’ and scams. Some sales calls are disguised as surveys, making the general public wary of the motivation behind being contacted in this way. Any reputable research agency will not carry out cold calls, and will always arrange a convenient time to call with participants who have agreed to be contacted in advance. Added to this are increased awareness and concerns surrounding data protection. Answers given during any survey, telephone or otherwise, should be treated in the strictest confidence, and researchers should notify the respondent that calls may be recorded for training purposes, and furthermore, any contact details used during the period of research should be destroyed upon completion.
Market researchers can benefit from conducting a telephone survey primarily due to the accessibility of respondents, either on a landline or a mobile phone. People who live in very rural areas may have an unreliable internet connection, for example, and would be unable to participate in an online survey. Although this percentage of the population is decreasing as internet connectivity is improving all the time, a survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics in 2018 revealed that 5.3 million people in the UK had either never gone online, or not used the internet in the last three months. Non-internet users generally fall within the 65+ age category. Therefore, when conducting surveys that require a representative proportion of the population, non-internet users can still become respondents through their telephones. In addition, self-administered questionnaires are a barrier to respondents with visual impairments, limited literacy skills, or immigrants to the UK who find it difficult to understand written English. Providing somebody has a telephone number or a mobile phone, it is straightforward to get in touch with them using this method.
It is rare to achieve high response rates for surveys that are self-administered by participants, either on paper or online, there is no guarantee that the participants will submit their completed surveys. At Mackman Research, we provide respondents with multiple opportunities to return their online surveys – we understand that many people lead busy lives and their initial email may have been deleted, sent to the Junk folder, or simply opened and forgotten about. In this way we maximise our response rate, but this is aided by the use of supplementary telephone calls where appropriate to obtain responses from participants. Once a conversation is started with a participant and they have time to spare, a successful survey can be completed quickly and easily.
Complexity and authenticity
Telephone surveys allow greater complexity of both questions and answers. They can accommodate a longer questionnaire, putting them at an advantage compared to self-administered formats, where fatigue may set in that causes the risk of incomplete or short answers. Over the phone, questions can be asked that prompt elaboration on previous answers, and a rapport can be established between the researcher and participant to encourage honest, authentic answers. The time taken to complete the survey and the perceived inconvenience of the call will be minimised if the survey feels less ‘clinical’, and the researcher appears more approachable – this is an example of the Ben Franklin effect, where participants will feel as if they are doing the researcher a favour, and will thus begin to be more accommodating.
Researchers can ask respondents questions in a methodical way and record the results as they go. However, phone interviews can be recorded, meaning that if a point is not clear or further clarification is needed, the call can be played back. Telephone surveys can lead to results offer greater insight – as mentioned in the previous paragraph, some participants do not answer surveys using longer responses, or if they do answer open-ended questions, these may be vague or cryptic. A common issue with online surveys, particularly those offering an incentive to participate, is that participants will repeat a click pattern, selecting the same ratings for each question, or fill out required fields with nonsense or the same word in order to ‘complete’ the survey and earn their reward. A telephone survey dramatically reduces the risk of human error and respondent despondency by maintaining engagement with careful probing, and thus is a more reliable method of collecting quality data.
The four key reasons above have touched on how useful telephone surveys are. If your business is looking to undertake a research project using telephone survey methods or any other form of data collection, get in touch with Mackman Research today to speak with a member of our friendly customer service team.
Peter Lynn and Olena Kaminska, ‘The Impact of Mobile Phones on Survey Measurement Error’, Institute for Social and Economic Research No. 7 (2011).
Ofcom, Communications Market Report (2019).
S. O’Dea, UK households: ownership of landline telephones 1970-2018, Statista.com (2020).