Here's 7 Reasons Driving the Collapse of Phone Surveys

collapse phone surveys market researchIn a fast-paced market research industry, methodologies continually evolve. Focus groups have evolved into online bulletin boards and mobile diaries. Mail surveys have evolved into email surveys which eliminated printing, postage, and time. Emails are instant while mail survey responses can take weeks or months.

Now, this may not be surprising to anyone, but phone surveys are in or near the final stages of their lifespan as it becomes an increasingly more difficult and more costly methodology to utilize in market research.

What once was the go-to methodology in market research decades ago has evolved to a near point of extinction. There was once a day where phone surveys were chosen over mail surveys because they were "faster". I use "faster" in quotation marks because the definition of fast in 1985 is not the same definition of fast in 2017.

Fieldwork was thought of in terms of weeks and months, and now it is thought of in terms of hours or days. It's one of many areas (7 to be exact) where phone surveys fall short.

The vultures are circling on phone surveys.


Here lies:

Telephone Surveys

1876 to 2017

Killed by the Internet

"Because as much as people disliked answering phone calls from strangers, they disliked it even more during dinner time."


Here are 7 key drivers contributing to the slow death of phone surveys.

Or the proverbial 7 nails in the phone survey coffin.

Nail in the Coffin 1: The Cost

The cost of a phone survey project is one of the most significant barriers for a client. Many will argue that the data quality is higher because it offers 2-way communication. An interviewer and an interviewee. A luxury that is not afforded when someone is answering an online survey. But is the slight improvement in data quality worth the significant uptick in overall cost?

Many are in agreement, it does not. I am in agreement it does not.

Think about the number of calls and hours it takes for reps to complete 1,000 surveys. If you are lucky to get 1 completed survey per hour, that's 1,000 hours of calls, plus training, project management, and list purchases. You'll likely need to train more reps as well so schedules can be alternated. This all adds up to more hours.

When compared to email which involves one sample upload, an email invitation, and a click of a button. Surveys can be up and running and completed within 24 to 48 hours. Even larger studies that require 1,000+ completes are not an issue. Whether it's 1 invite or 10,000, it's still 1 click. The vast majority (75% or more) of your completes are received in the first 24 hours of an invite.

However, some laggard industries and organizations are stuck in the mindset of "this is how we've always done it". Organizations have built up large tracker studies which have used phone surveys for decades and they know a change in methodology will need to be accounted for through adjustments and weighting, but they know it still will not be apples to apples. So the work and fear prevent them from changing.

So they go on. Year after year. Making phone call after phone call. Adding more and more time and expense to the budget each year to keep their phone tracking study going. It becomes tougher and tougher to get 1,000 completes. Longer and longer. Even for these clients, ties will need to be cut eventually to shift online. You can rip off the band-aid or slowly peel it back each year with a transition plan.

Whichever you choose, the point being is: phone surveys are not cost-effective and are not the future in market research.

Nail in the Coffin 2: The Time

Cost is not the only major negative pushing companies and organizations away from a phone survey methodology. Time is another key deterrent. Let's use the same example above of a 1,000 complete phone survey with a call center.

If you are targeting consumers in the Northeast you will only be able to call from 4:00 or 5:00 until 8:30 p.m. or so. That's a window of 3 and a half to 5 hours. If your project only has 4 or 5 dedicated callers and stations each night, this will be a slow progression of fieldwork at the pace of 1 per hour. This will likely take you weeks or months to finalize.

Now, think about the same scope using an email survey. You program it, send out invites, send a reminder 48 hours later and? You're done. Depending on the size of the email list, 1,000+ completes can be collected quickly.

We've completed fieldwork for projects quicker with online methodologies than it took just to train and pre-test a call center team on a phone survey project. Think about that for a second.

As an impatient market researcher, reading about projects or case studies that take 4 weeks or more to field really irks me. It does. That's an eternity for us and an eternity to wait for insights for our clients. Maybe it's the Drive in our name, but we move fast because each additional day of fieldwork is one extra day it takes for our clients to take action.

Clients of market research want instant gratification, instant results. They want to see the ROI immediately on a survey. Using a phone methodology, it can take weeks to months to reach an acceptable sample size where the client is comfortable reading into and accepting the data as reliable. With an online survey, this can happen within 1 hour of invitations.

Now, we ask you to think about that as well for a second.

Okay, done ruminating on that point? Let's move on to nail number 3.

Nail in the Coffin 3: Inability to Optimize

With phone surveys being slow to launch and slow to collect data, any changes to optimize and improve an introduction, survey question, or process are also slow.

If you make a change to the introduction language in hopes to boost interest, you'll likely have to wait another 24 hours to see how that night's calls compared to prior night's calls. It's not sensible to make a change, get the outcome you wanted after 1 call, and say that optimization worked. It takes time to collect enough cases for testing.

With online surveys, many software platforms allow for A/B testing. If they do not, it's fairly simple to create your own through 2 separate collectors. Maybe test A offers a chance to win 5 Amazon gift cards for $50 and test B offers 2 Amazon gift cards for $125. After an initial test drive soft-launch, you can have these open rates, completion rates, etc. within an hour or 2. Then you can pick the campaign which offered a better return and you are off and running with a full-scale launch.

You can test subject lines, text in the email message, and the timing of messages.

Phone surveys do track some data through CATI systems and dispositions but they often involve a lot of project management and subjective evaluation. A/B testing online allows you to isolate a variable, make a change to that variable, and measure impact.

Rinse, optimize, repeat.

In market research, we consider our A/B testing as our own personal laboratory experiment. Except there are no white coats, no flammable liquids, and no chance of explosion (yet).

Nail in the Coffin 4: Lack of Targeting Capabilities

One of the largest benefits of conducting online research via a panel or through social media is the ability to target nearly any demographic or interest. Don't believe us? Think about all of the information you or your friends talk about or "like" willingly on Facebook.

Yup, Facebook tracks all of that big data and uses it to sell to advertisers. Mind blown? We thought so. Although probably not surprising in a world of big data.

With phone surveys, can you purchase a list? Yes.

Can you target a list of specific titles and geographies? Yes.

Can you target a list of people who like to drink craft beer? Unlikely.

But many panel companies track these types of data points from survey responses to estimate incidence rates. Wait, an incidence what? We explain here.

What about Facebook's ability to target craft beer drinkers? Very easy to do. You can target those who like brewery pages, like beer pages, or who mentioned they are interested in craft beer. Lots of options to pinpoint the audience.

Household lists and landline phone records offer the ability to tack on specific demographics for phone surveys. But they're basic. You could order a list and ask for female heads of households with a specific income range.

However, with cell phones becoming the predominant phone among households and consumers this has gotten much trickier. More on that in a minute.

Something as simple as targeting geography with a cell phone list is not as easy as it sounds. Cell phone ZIP codes and county lists are based on the ZIP Code of origin or where the cell phone number was set up.

Think back to when you got the cell phone number you use now. Many of you don't likely live anywhere near there anymore, changed counties, states, or even countries.

So if I wanted to do a phone survey and target only people who live in Adams County NY (fictitious), if you originally purchased your cell phone line in Adams County but now live somewhere on the West Coast, you'll be getting a call about an image and awareness survey for a diner 2,800 miles away.

Doesn't seem very efficient, does it? It adds to the cost and time of phone survey projects and cell phone lists are largely ineffective and many of the numbers are wasted.

Nail in the Coffin 5: Erosion of Landlines

Perhaps nothing is more telling than this statistic. The image highlights the number of U.S. adults with a landline phone versus a cell phone.

Since 2004 cell phones have grown from about 15% of households all the way up to over 60%. Conversely, landline telephone households have dropped from nearly 100% all the way down to less than 40%. This is staggering how quickly this has changed.

The trend from 2004 to now but is clear. It's not going to turn around either.

In fact, we have new generations born who will never experience a phone with a cord. They'll never experience untangling and running a long cord into the laundry room and closing the door to talk in privacy to their friends and away from their parents.

This drastic disappearance of landline phones has impacted market research immensely.

Nail in the Coffin 6: Caller ID

When cell phones became popular, Caller ID became a built-in feature. A feature that both market research firms and telemarketers alike hate. How often do you answer a phone call from a number you don't recognize? Hardly ever right? You'll likely let it go right to voicemail. If they don't leave one, some of you may even search the number online. Or better yet, ignore the call and search online for the number while it's still ringing.

Well, it's no different with a standard respondent in market research. Fewer people "picking up" the phone means more dialing, more time, and more cost for a phone survey project. (I say picking up but nowadays it's more like swiping to answer).

This makes it increasingly difficult to reach a person live when they have the time or are in the mood to answer a phone call.

It's become a rare occurrence in the industry and phone surveys are paying the price.

Nail in the Coffin 7: Millennials, Gen Y, and Gen Z

A standard screener question in market research is ensuring the person you are conducting the research with is a qualified adult, someone aged 18 or older. Younger generations have grown up in households that likely do not have (or never had) a landline phone. These tech-savvy generations are well-accustomed to texting and messaging and spend lots of time on social media.

Why talk when you can chat, text, or email? Even I fall into this behavior a lot. And I'm no youngster anymore.

This doesn't bode well for phone surveys who need to speak to a live person in order to get a complete. The younger generations are more comfortable with online communication and texting and as a result, are even less likely than an older adult to answer a phone call.

That is if you can reach them through a landline or cell phone list, which is a separate problem in itself we addressed earlier.

What, the heck, is this thing and how do I work it? It looks more like a gumball machine than a communications device.

In Summary

After reading some of these points, it's not difficult to see why phone surveys have struggled as a methodology over the past decade. The decline of landlines is staggering.

The combination of targeting audiences, speed, and cost-effectiveness offered by online research far outweigh any quality data advantages from a phone survey and a conversation. A combination of these trends and behaviors over the past 12 years has all but eliminated phone surveys as the methodology of choice.

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Contact our Market Research Firm

Drive Research is a market research firm located in Syracuse, NY. We specialize in Voice of Customer (VoC) and Customer Experience (CX) market research including online surveys.

Questions about how we can help your organization?

Call us at 315-303-2040 or send us an email at [email protected].

Phone Surveys