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Is telephone research dead?

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4th Jul 2011
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Has telephone interviewing, a staple format of market research for many years, had its day? Are online surveys taking their place? Matt Counsell looks at the evidence.

The development of online methodologies has been the most significant change within the market research industry for decades; as online techniques undoubtedly offer many advantages over more traditional approaches (not least of which is cost) this area of the industry is growing rapidly. In the area of quantitative research, it is primarily computer assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) surveys which are being replaced by an omline approach - indeed some agencies have even closed down their CATI Units, so confident are they that the day of the telephone survey is dead and gone. 
However, if one looks carefully at the facts, rather than simply being blinded by the glitz surrounding this ‘new’ approach, one is likely to conclude that telephone research will continue to have an important role to play within the industry, long into the future.
A major drawback to online surveys is the fact that relatively few organisations possess good coverage of customers’ email addresses – yes they may hold a sufficient number to make an on-line survey feasible, but the first question that should always be asked is ‘will this sample frame be representative of the required population?’, bearing in mind that certain groups (such as older and more down-market people) tend to be under-represented in terms of internet access. Whilst this situation is likely to change as time goes on and organisations become more efficient at capturing email addresses, some of the other considerations which on occasion make a CATI survey the most appropriate methodology will, I believe, endure.  
One such factor is the proliferation of ‘phishing’ emails – these are now so prevalent that consumers  are constantly being advised to ignore unsolicited emails – especially from financial institutions. Understandably therefore, we have found considerable reluctance to take part in financial research online – and the low participation rate again calls into question the validity of  the resulting sample. In this instance a CATI approach may well be more appropriate, as potential respondents can be individually reassured about the authenticity of the survey.  
Along similar lines, the personal nature of a telephone call provides an excellent opportunity to develop a rapport with the respondent which can be important not only in terms of convincing them to take part in the survey, but also in encouraging them to ‘open up’ and give full and honest information. This is particularly important for certain groups of people, such as High Net Worth, Sub Prime and elderly  consumers.
In addition, another benefit to a CATI survey, and one which is often over-looked,  is the ‘richness’ of the data that can be collected through open-ended questions. An interviewer is trained to fully probe such questions, continuing to prompt until everything the respondent has to say has been captured. In addition s/he is taught to clarify confusing or contradictory responses, to ensure they are meaningful. With an on-ine survey, respondents can give a brief response and move on (after all it’s more onerous to type in comments than simply say them), or even avoid answering the question all together by tapping any key and clicking continue.
Another key advantage of a CATI approach is the ability to listen-in to interviews either live as they happen, or after the event by means of call recording software, which is an option obviously not available with online research. This offers a qualitative ‘feel’ to quantitative interviews, providing  a fuller understanding of the context in which the survey was answered. Our clients find call recordings to back up the ‘hard’ data really valuable – they can hear for themselves what tone of voice was used when making an open-ended comment, with  how much conviction a response was given, how engaged the respondent appeared to be with the sponsoring organisation etc.
Of course, online research undoubtedly has numerous advantages – it can be engaging, allowing the presentation of multi-media materials to respondents, it is fast and, above all, cost effective. Consequently like many other agencies we have seen the volume of online work we conduct increase dramatically over recent years. However, we are keen to ensure the best  technique is adopted based on the specific needs of each project – and in many cases this dictates a CATI approach. 
Encouragingly, many clients are still happy to pay the extra that a CATI survey may cost, if it is in fact the most appropriate methodology. Indeed, as well as our online work increasing year on year,  the volume of CATI surveys we carry out is also growing. So to all those who predicted that online would replace telephone interviewing, we’d like to say look again at the evidence – far from having had its day, telephone research is very much alive!

Matt Counsell is head of quantitative research and one of the partners at McCallum Layton.

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By EddieFrullo
30th Aug 2011 06:30

Incredibly great read! Honestly!

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