Conducting Surveys in a Diverse Communications World

In 1999, only 29 percent of U.S. residents used cell phones. Today, more than 91 percent of the U.S. population use cell phones — a 237% increase! Many people, “cord cutters,” as they’re known in the industry, have kicked their landlines to the curb and have only a cell phone number.  The number of cord cutters will probably increase, given the growing popularity and sales of smart phones that integrate many functions previously available only on computers.

It makes you wonder if landline phones are in the category with dinosaurs – something that roamed (pun intended) the earth eons ago.

What does this mean for telephone surveys, a major component of market research and a big part of IEM’s work in conducting public outreach surveys that help evaluate the public’s awareness and knowledge of emergency warning methods, sources of information during an emergency, and willingness and ability to follow recommended protective actions?

For sure, this phenomenon has impacted phone surveys.  However, a national study of surveys conducted using cell phones found that although conducting surveys with sampled cell phone numbers was feasible, there were lower response rates than in landline surveys, higher refusal rates, and lower refusal conversion rates (convincing respondents who have declined to take the survey to actually take it).

Because cord cutters tend to be younger populations, telephone surveys have experienced a sharp decline in the percentage of younger respondents interviewed.

This has not gone unnoticed by our customers, and, as a result, they have requested that we identify options to landline surveys. While including cell phones in the survey was a requested option, we recommended an internet survey in addition to the landline survey as an alternative to try to capture this younger demographic for the following reasons.

  • Currently, telephone surveys use a process called random digit dialing to access telephone numbers where the prefix is attached to a specific geographic location. Cell phone number prefixes may be tied to a geographic location, but there is no guarantee that the person actually lives or works in that area.  To account for that, more cell phone numbers would have to be called to get a similar response rate to the landline telephone survey.  In addition, Federal law prohibits the use of automated dialing devices when calling cell phones; thus each number in the cell phone sample would have to be dialed manually, increasing costs.
  • Most surveys are conducted to gather information from and document the experiences of adult respondents.  Since many adolescents and teenagers under the age of 18 have personal cell phones, they would be ineligible to participate in a cell phone survey.
  • Research shows that adding a cell phone only portion to a telephone survey only changes the results of the overall survey by +/- 1 percentage point.

In 2012, IEM will conduct a pilot internet public outreach survey, along with the landline telephone survey, for one of our customers. We anticipate this will provide a wider range of respondents and do a better job of reaching younger age demographics. The survey questions will be comparable with previous surveys so we should be able to measure the effect of adding the internet survey to the previous landline phone only survey.

Stay tuned for the results.


Author: Marilyn Stackhouse, Senior Communications and Outreach Specialist