Online vs. Phone Surveys: Does Convenience Cause Participation and Accuracy?

Senior doctor with smartphone working at the office.

Households across the country are dropping landlines and moving to cell phones. But are people on the phone less? A misperception of many is that people don’t want to do phone surveys from their cell phone and prefer online instead. Many will say that they would do an online survey before a survey by phone, but is that really true? The reality is more complicated. Online surveys work very well with a contained group of respondents such as employees, patients, and physicians where you have firm emails for the population. However, when working with a group that is not contained, such as random respondents in the community, online surveys are not nearly as effective.

Contained groups such as employees, patients, and physicians are more likely to participate in surveys in which they have a vested interest, or some close connection. For example, these contained groups are connected to their experience as a patient at their doctor’s office, a stay in a hospital, or their perceptions of the hospital as a place to work. As a result, they may feel more compelled to provide feedback. On the other hand, the general community does not have such a vested interest. While a consumer may complete a quick online survey sent to them by a retailer or service, those non-blinded surveys ask about the services provided, providing consumers with a vested interest in the survey. Most consumer surveys are typically blinded.

Blinded online consumer surveys are not generally conducted by sending surveys to a random selection of emails in the community. Email lists are not nearly as available as phone numbers, and with the amount of spam email that exists, there is likely as high—if not higher—rates of people not doing a survey emailed to them than those not doing a phone survey.

In the consumer world, surveys are completed when vendors collect panelists, or people who have signed up with the vendor to conduct online surveys in exchange for some sort of incentive. These online panels have their place and can be added on to a traditional telephone study to complement larger markets to maximize results. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work as well in smaller communities, simply because there just aren’t many panelists available.

So, what does this mean for state of blinded consumer studies? Participation by cell phone may not be quite as good as back in time when most everyone had a landline, but nonetheless remains an extremely viable source for conducting research. Looking beyond common misperception, there are more people out there that both will and do complete a telephone survey than there are people that are part of online consumer research panels.

Understandably, the number of completed surveys is vital to the representation the same has compared to the overall population. Conducting phone surveys, both via landline for those that still have them and by cell phone, remains the best way to ensure you get a representative sample of your market. If combined with a phone survey, internet panels can help level out demographics and should be entertained when deciding on research. However, when standing alone, an online survey of a community at large is not as useful as a phone methodology that incorporates cell phones in the sample.

Author: Keith Schneider