Caller RIP Featured

9:44am EDT July 22, 2002
In the good old days of market research, it used to take a small army of telephone operators calling hundreds of numbers and a flotilla of survey takers drifting through the local mall to get a good sample.

But no more. Technology, as it has so many times in the past, is rapidly making telephone surveys as outdated as eight-track tapes.

“It has to do with the fact that it’s harder and harder to talk to people on the phone,” says Amy Yoffie, vice president of market research with Research Connections, a firm specializing in Web-based research. “People have answering machines and caller ID, and a lot of people are associating market research with sales calls. Response is going down dramatically.”

As the masses continue adding bricks to their electronic wall to keep out unwanted calls, they are also going online. Companies are inviting customers to fill out surveys via the Web. Retailers are forming virtual focus groups. Marketers are doing more research while spending less.

Companies using the Web get a higher response and higher quality information,” says Yoffie. “People are able to answer the surveys when they want. They can be thoughtful about the questions, as opposed to being interrupted in the middle of dinner.”

Response to telephone surveys can be 40 percent or less. Web surveys fare worse, with only about 20 percent responding to an invitation.

While this should increase as more people go online, consider one important difference: “You don’t have the labor cost of interviewers making phone calls. The cost of doing another increment of interviews is much lower. To do another 100 interviews is a negligible cost compared to the phone.”

So while phone surveys have a better response rate initially, it’s cheaper to do it by Web.

Research firms use a variety of methods to develop a pool of candidates. Some have the general populace fill out their demographic information and invite them to specific surveys for a chance to win cash or other prizes. A company might have an e-mail list of its customers, or a pop-up window can be utilized to entice visitors at a Web site to fill out a survey.

Turnaround time is fairly quick. A survey can be put up overnight, with thousands of invitations sent out simultaneously. A more specific survey, aimed at a narrow demographic group, might take longer — both in designing the survey and finding enough qualified candidates.

Most of the larger online research firms have established pools of people to choose from to invite to take a survey. If a particular population isn’t on file, there are opt-in e-mail lists that can be purchased to meet the need.

So is the phone survey doomed?

“I think there will always be a certain amount of market research done by phone,” says Yoffie. “It may be for hard-to-find populations, like people that don’t have Internet access. I expect within three to five years that the phone survey industry will be cut in half.

“Door-to-door interviews used to be very common, but now are dead. I don’t believe the phone survey will ever be dead, but people that think it will stay at the level it’s at now are kidding themselves.”

How to reach: Research Connections (which has recently been acquired by Talk City),

Todd Shryock ( is SBN’s special reports editor.