Have you conducted an online research study and fell short of your quota for adults 55 and older? If so, you’re not alone. While older adults are using the Internet in increasing volumes, they are less likely to use the Internet for much more than e-mailing, information searching and making travel reservations. This means they are less likely to respond to your online survey than younger adults. Yet the market research industry has fully adopted the online methodology as the best way to obtain feedback in many cases, and mobile research is the next rising star.

It’s no surprise that Generation Y (ages 18-32) and Generation X (ages 33-44) account for most of the Internet population. The 2009 Pew Internet and American Life Project studied the Internet usage of adults across generations and found they are more likely to use the Internet for social activities and entertainment compared to older adults (ages 50 and older). The study also found that younger adults tend to be more comfortable with technology in general and consider it an essential tool in their life.

Older adults use technology, including computers and mobile devices, but to a lesser extent than young people, and older adults could live without them, at least for a short time. For them, technology intrudes on their personal time and they can enjoy being “unplugged.” This means they may be less likely to respond to an online or mobile survey, especially if they didn’t give expressed permission to be contacted. Privacy matters and worries about SPAM and scams are of greater concern to older populations.

Yet, there are very good reasons to use online and mobile research: they are cost effective (especially in this economy), completed faster than mail and landline phone surveys and you can see results in real time. With so much emphasis from the market research industry (organizations, publications, education) on online and mobile surveys, businesses and research firms gravitate towards these methodologies first, but we have to reach our target audiences where they are. Clients trust researchers to recommend the best approach and researchers should not devalue the opinions of older adults by relying so heavily on these new techniques.

It’s been my experience to have higher than average response rates from older populations (ages 55 and older) when using mail surveys and lower than average responses from them with online surveys. And the reverse is true with younger people.

A 2007 study conducted by Lightspeed Research among its American panelists found that adults ages 55 and up responded to a mobile phone survey at a rate of only 18 percent compared to 38 percent among 18-24 year olds and 36 percent among those ages 25-34. The study was designed to measure the willingness of consumers to take mobile surveys, and most respondents were willing to take mobile surveys in the future. (Quirks, November 2007)

While technology brings exciting new ways for market researchers to reach respondents, limiting traditional methodologies reduces the reach of research and can lead to biased results. When polls are mentioned in the news and claim to represent an actual population, it’s likely that older people are under represented if an online survey was used. Or if panels were used, older adults who are atypical compared to others in their age group were included, as panelists are likely more technologically savvy than average.

At market research organization conferences and forums, the highlight of the schedule is often new methodologies due to technological advancements, and information is presented about the latest forecast for how they will revolutionize the way we connect with our target audiences. Topics include social networking, online focus groups, texting surveys, mobile apps, tweeting and the list continues.
But when was the last time there was a session about the merits of mail or landline phone surveys at an industry conference? Of course, interesting findings of these traditional methods may be shared at conferences, but the results are the theme, not the methodology.

Compared to five years ago, Internet usage has increased among the 70-75 year old age group, up from 26 percent in 2005 to 45 percent of the age group, according to Pew Research. In the next five to 10 years, online usage and adoption of mobile phones are expected to continue to rise among baby boomers and the oldest populations. But even if it does, their comfort level with this technology will probably still lag behind younger populations and the types of online and mobile use will continue to differ by generation.

In the short term, researchers should continue to use traditional methods of phone (landline) and mail surveys to reach those over age 50. Within the next five to 10 years as they age and become a larger portion of the population, they will expand their attachments to tech tools, and the market research industry will be ready to meet them online or on their mobile device with greater success.