Sooner or Later, Everything Old is New Again

By Angela Burtch, Vice President, Merrill Research

5-Minute Read

I never thought I’d be writing a blog about conducting surveys by telephone again. Well, maybe not entirely, but hear me out.

Early Online Survey Engines

Since the creation of online survey platforms like SurveyMonkey in the mid-1990s (which, BTW purchased Zoomerang, by MarketTools – a company co-developed and financially backed by Merrill Research, WPP, Proctor & Gamble, and General Mills), market research surveying rapidly shifted from pen-and-paper telephone studies or CATI (computer-assisted telephone interviewing) to online market research.  Online sample providers were popping up everywhere.  The online research industry boomed.

It was the panacea of all research woes – quicker and cheaper. With very few exceptions our clients quickly switched their telephone quantitative research to online.  Everyone was “all in” to make the move to the web.  And the benefits were many.

What was the Original Appeal of Online Surveys?

  • Cost and time reduction: No expensive call centers or interviewers.
  • Increased convenience and accessibility: Respondents complete the survey at their own pace and place.
  • Enhanced engagement and interaction:  Surveys incorporate multimedia elements such as images, videos, audio clips, or animations.
  • Anonymity and confidentiality:  Respondents don’t have to reveal their identity or personal info to an interviewer – especially beneficial for sensitive research topics.
  • Reporting: Facilitate real-time data analysis and reporting with a few clicks.

A Problematic Panacea

But then things began to sour. We saw it start to change over the past five years with the security and quality of online sample.  Click farms, bots, and other bad actors are increasingly common and able to circumvent the safety nets we’ve cast to detect poor data.  We explored this in our previous blog.

This is not the good ol’ days when online panel companies used to source sample by invite only from validated subscription lists or partner companies such as airlines, hotels, and retailers. 

The Advantages of Telephone/CATI

So, is the alternative to revert 100% back to telephone? Well, telephone or CATI surveys do have some advantages such as:

  • Reach B2B respondents too busy and not interested in participating in online research panels.
  • People are increasingly concerned about sharing their info, opinions, or Personal Identifying Information (PII ) on the Internet. This is especially true considering increased worry surrounding clicking on survey links on websites, texts, or email invites. 
  • Trained and professional interviewers can clarify questions, probe for more details, and verify responses.  A live interviewer can help mitigate misunderstanding.
  • High-quality assurance, as researchers/clients can monitor the calls in real-time and check for errors or miscommunication during an interview.

Disadvantages of Telephone/CATI

However, telephone studies have disadvantages:

  • Longer field time.
  • Typically, more expensive.
  • Landline telephone usage is decreasing and represents an older demographic – however, often still a good reach for B2B. 
  • Mobile phone panelists skew younger (at least for now). 

Hybrid or Mixed Mode is a Good Solution

So, what’s the solution?  One way to overcome this challenge is to use a hybrid approach when you need it to address a niche audience.  A combination of telephone or CATI surveys with online. This approach can help leverage the strengths of both methods and overcome their limitations, resulting in better data quality, higher response rates, and more comprehensive insights. Depending on your research questions, target population, budget, timeline, and resources, you may benefit from using a hybrid design.

The Human Connection

We recently engaged in a phone study where the respondents were extremely busy and hard to reach.  We kept hearing: “Could you please just send me an email with a link to the survey?”  The best way to ensure participation with these time-constrained respondents may be by initial telephone screening, profiling, getting some of the easier questions out of the way, presenting an incentive, and then having them complete the more detailed portion of the interview online when it’s convenient for them.  The human connection is made, and follow-through rates are generally higher.

Other use cases:

  • Use online surveys for follow-up and feedback: You can use online surveys to collect additional information from respondents who have completed your telephone or CATI survey. You can enrich your data with more details and insights that may not have been captured by telephone.
  • CATI surveys can validate and verify: You can use telephone or CATI surveys to check the accuracy and consistency of the responses from your online survey. Collect telephone contact info and validate a percentage of online completes. Make sure you’re collaborating with a partner who ensures you are PII compliant.

Telephone and online surveys are both valuable methods of data collection for marketing research. However, using them in isolation may not always yield the best results. By combining them in a hybrid approach, you can optimize your data quality, response rates, and insights.

Need help deciding on the best data collection process?

Let Merrill Research help you with the best methodology.