Are you constraining your research methodology based on outdated thinking or technology?

When Mark Twain reportedly said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” I’m sure he didn’t realize that more than 100 years later that message would also apply to phone research. In spite of what you may have heard, the phone is still very much alive and plays a critical role in multi-mode data collection. Don A. Dillman of Washington State University observes, “The hoped-for ‘seamless’ transition from telephone to Internet-only surveys has not happened. We need it [telephone], just as we need all of our data collection modes.”[1]

Much marketing research has shifted from phone to online data collection as researchers seek ways to reduce costs. Today, many are rediscovering phones’ newer technology and exploring the advantages of combining phone, online, and IVR in their research design. Historic barriers are coming down to enable data collection strategies that include not only mixed methods but also mixed vendors and distributed organizations.

Data collection with phone-based outreach has become an increasingly precise operation, intelligently targeting respondents and delivering hard-to-reach demographics. Fully-automated online surveys offer the beauty of low cost, labor-free data collection, but the profile of respondents is difficult to control since who responds depends upon the respondent’s initiative. When you add phone, you can expand your reach, attain quota faster, and reduce the need to weight data.

Survey Design Considerations – One Mode or Many

Think about your reasons for doing research. These are generally focused on providing insights that drive business decisions, increase awareness or public opinion, and measure customer satisfaction. In defining the data collection methodology, however, many researchers limit themselves to whatever method they have in-house rather than the methodology that best fits the needs of the study. That’s where multi-mode can make a real difference.

CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE: When you rely exclusively on a single data collection method, you may not be engaging respondents in the way they prefer, which lowers the cooperation rate.

VALUE: If you need more in-depth responses from one target audience (which phone interviewing can deliver) but an abbreviated survey is sufficient for the majority, then you won’t want to compromise by using just a single survey method. Choosing only one mode may lower the return on your investment by under- or over-surveying a segment.

REACH: If respondent demographic is important to your study, then the data collection method must reach those segments. As businesses and opinion polls are looking to get more accurate insights from consumers and citizens, they are moving to phone to fill quota. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. adults have Internet access but there are segments that an online survey cannot reach. Fortunately, 98 percent of adults in U.S. households can be reached via phone.

Market Segments and the Need to Add Phone to Online Research

More than 40 percent1 of the U.S. population over 65 and roughly 20 percent of minority, rural and lower income groups do not have Internet access.

Although Internet adoption is rising among seniors 65 and older, 60 percent in that group with a high school education or less do not go online.2

By 2017, approaching half of the U.S. population will be 50 or over and control 70 percent of the disposable income.3 Individuals 65+ will represent a large part of that group. With that kind of purchasing power, why weight their results when phone research can provide more accurate insights?

Increasingly, more people are accessing online surveys from their smartphones. However, while 77 percent of seniors 65+ own cellphones, only 18 percent own smartphones.4 So, they are much less likely to respond to an online survey from that device.

Don’t let the mode you use constrain the impact and depth of your insights. By taking a multi-mode approach to accessing desired demographics in the way that best fits their needs, you can increase response rates and the breadth of respondents.

Engagement – The Customer’s Way

Online research provides a cost-effective way to access respondents who prefer to be contacted that way. If you are trying to reach a young, more affluent and educated demographic, then online would be an effective mode. A busy professional, however, who reads the survey invitation on a smartphone, may prefer to interact with a short IVR survey or talk to a live agent for a hands-free experience. In contrast, a senior citizen may be more comfortable talking with an interviewer over the phone. In phone interviews, for example, the interviewer has the opportunity to explain a question in detail if the respondent needs help or doesn’t understand a question.

Multi-Mode Data Collection

Today’s technology enables research data collection operations to build flexible platforms that integrate online, IVR and live phone interviewing and employ them strategically to meet the needs of the researchers.

Investment – Differentiated by Respondent Status

Sometimes respondents are not created equal. In all businesses, certain segments of customers and employees are more important than others, so be strategic and take a multi-mode approach. For example, you may need more in-depth information from certain groups. So, use the survey across different modes based on the level of information and the value of the information you want from a respondent.

A business may consider interviewing most customers online and using phone to obtain more detailed responses from their preferred customers. Selecting a mode based on the value of the information from the respondent helps to control budgets and deliver strong ROI.

IVR – The “Other”Phone Mode

IVR offers the same reach as phone-based interviewing without the need for live interviewers standing by. Respondents can click to call into a survey and record their message – quickly, easily, and cost-effectively. IVR can now be more seamlessly integrated into your multi-mode data collection strategies.

Demographics – Reached by More Cost-Effective Phone Data Collection

Public opinion research companies are experimenting with IVR-only studies to conduct short political polls and discovering an effective method to deliver the study within budget and meet tight deadlines. This approach has allowed them to scale without increasing labor costs. It has also enabled them the opportunity to offer another type of service to their customers and save their clients money. By having this new “product” in their portfolio – the IVR-only survey – they can grow their business.

Given today’s TCPA cell phone calling restrictions, researchers have begun combining IVR with live phone interviewing to effectively deliver target demographics and maintain compliance. Conducting studies concurrently with IVR combined with phone interviewing reduces the cost of reaching respondents by phone. Some state and local governments can’t afford a large benchmark study with all phone interviews. They also may not be able to conduct an IVR-only study and leave out cell phones. Being able to call landlines with IVR and cell phones with live interviewers makes phone-based research available to public policy researchers with smaller budgets.

No More Limits

Stop limiting research design by using outdated notions of technical capabilities and costs. Set budgets, quotas and timelines and then choose the right data collection strategy to meet your goals. Think strategically about data collection and release yourself from traditional technology constraints. Mixing modes, and even mixing vendors, are both more effective now. Modern data collection strategies enable you to field research any way you want and reach the demographics you desire based on their preferences. Technology barriers are breaking down, making multi-mode research very practical. Consider using IVR, Web and phone to accelerate results, increase representative insights and meet budgets. By taking this approach, you will see how the phone is alive and helping to provide powerful, early insights that drive business decisions and reflect public opinion.

Mary McDougall is president and CEO of CFMC, a software provider to the market research and public opinion polling industry with a key focus on Survox® solutions and the industry-leading Survent® multi-mode survey management platform.

1  Pew Research Center Internet Project Survey, January 9 – 12, 2014.

2  Aaron Smith, Older Adults and Technology Use, Pew Research Center, April 3, 2014.

3  Matthew Boyle, Aging Boomers Stump Marketers Eyeing 15 Trillion Prize, Bloomberg Business, September 17, 2013.

4  Aaron Smith, Older Adults and Technology Use, Usage and Adoption, Pew Research Center, April 3, 2014.

[1]  Don A. Dillman, PAPOR presentation, Achieving Synergy Across Survey Modes: Mail Contact and Web Responses from Address-based Samples, December 12, 2013.


Technology barriers are coming down and researchers should once again consider the strategic value of phone research to reach seniors, minorities and other vital segments. Even with the high costs of cell phone dialing, phone-based research can fit budgets with a multi-mode approach.

Learn how you can reduce weighting, speed up results, meet budget and deliver better insights when Mary McDougall presents Phone Research: Insanity or Competitive Advantage? at the 2015 MRA Insights & Strategies Conference on Thursday, June 4, from 9:45 to 10:30 a.m.