Telephone research must stop. Full stop.


Image courtesy of Old Telephones

Let’s agree this now everyone. There are some things marketing and communications should steer well clear of and the telephone is one of them. So lets have no more telemarketing spam, lets have no more political parties ringing people up with an automated message and lets have no more telephone research.

Planners in advertising have a dark secret. While we spend a considerable amount of time commissioning and using quantitative research, we very rarely take part in it. Indeed, like most people that work in marketing, we are screened out from almost all market research. This rather arcane practice is based on the quaint idea that respondents should be ignorant of the research process thereby ensuring more accurate answers. This is similar to the way animals entering an abattoir are made unaware of their surroundings and so succumb to the experience placidly and without distress. Nice placid respondents are exactly what researchers like.
However, there is something deeply troubling when people asks others to undertake anything that they themselves never experience as customers. And so it is with research, where the end users of quantitative surveys often have no real idea of what it feels like to be a respondent, whether its because they decline to take part or are screened out from the interview in the opening seconds. The truth is that if we all had to go through the full horror of a thirty minute questionnaire, we would never let the length of our surveys get out of hand. If we ever had to experience the frustration of being asked to chose from a selection of banal pre-scripted answers that don’t reflect the way we actually feel, we would ask more open ended questions. And if we ever had to endure the imposition, irritation and imbecility of a telephone interview, we would never use telephone research again.
Telephone research, much like its evil twin, telemarketing is a perversion of both the noble role of the telephone and the honourable tradition of research. Not only must one question whether we should submit any fellow human being to the experience, but we should also be extremely dubious about the truthfulness of the results. Not least because finishing the damn thing, rather than recording accurate responses, often becomes the primary aim of interviewer and respondent alike. Thankfully, when it comes to research the telephone is an intermediate technology and one we no longer have to put up with.
While expensive face to face research remains the gold standard the internet is changing the way we acquire the information we all need to do our jobs, especially where budgets and timings are tight. Indeed there are often circumstances where the lack of moderator in online research improves its accuracy over face to face, particularly when it comes to political polling where people are often more honest if they are telling a machine. Online, respondents can chose the time they want to undertake the questionnaire they are participating in, they can consider the questions properly and they can consider the options for their answer properly. They can even come back to tricky questions or take a break from the survey altogether, ensuring that research is completed in a relaxed state of mind and without an impatient low wage interviewer breathing down their handset. While this may reduce the innocence of respondents it is actually possible that people will enjoy online research.
The internet continues to have a profound effect on the marketing business. However, at the same time as the noisy revolution that is taking place in the world of marketing communications the online survey is heralding a more profound but rather quieter revolution in the world of market research. We just need to make sure we take part in it from time to time so that it remains a positive experience for our customers, even if that means fibbing about our profession.

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9 Replies to “Telephone research must stop. Full stop.”

  1. As someone who makes his living trying to cajole normal people to help us do quantitative surveys I believe the problem is much wider than planners not being willing to take part. Most quantitative surveys – on the phone or even on the internet – are dull. The quality of data deteriorates during the course of overly long questionnaires, and most respondents who have any sort of a life ( ie the ones we are probably trying to target with marketing activity) are just willing the process to end – and trying to take the most expeditious route to get it finished.
    I think all quant research could do worse than look across at the world of qual research – where the moderator’s role in life is to make the information gathering process interesting, engaging and ultimately insightful.
    it can be done, but to do so we are going to have to reassess some of the fundamentals underlying the approach to most quant surveys.

  2. I alway take part in these calls when they come to me. Or at least I do when I’m bored or slightly tipsy. I find that “operations manager” is a job description that the marketers like to hear.
    The interesting thing I’ve found is that these callers never ask open ended questions like “Why?” The questions are always multiple choice. Easier and cheaper to quantify, I presume.
    Once, though, I did get in a swipe at Halifax. At the end, they asked if I would consider banking with them. I replied “No, because judging by their ads, they think I’m an imbecile.”

  3. You seem to critiquing the quality rather than the concept of telephone interviewing (beside the reasonable point of pre-screening out marketers, which I am in agreement with you on)
    Bad researchers create bad surveys and bad experiences. Talented researchers are capable of creating the converse.
    The main issue with telephone research is that it is becoming less representative. Whether TPS, mobile use (can’t geo-tag upfront and people less willing to participate as it is more “personal”) or declining penetration of landlines, telephone surveys are becoming less representative of the general public.
    It won’t be long before online is more rep in principle. In practice, 70% may be online but the frequency distribution is so skewed that surveys are heavily biased against light users
    And regarding your final point, interviewers don’t asky why or ad-lib because they have no authority to do so. They have had no participation in the construction of the survey – they are just reading it out and collecting responses because the researcher doesn’t have the time/inclination to do so themselves. That is at least one way online succeeds – researchers are more likely to actively participate as they can communicate one-to-many.
    My opinion is that that there is still a place for telephone interviewing. It is far from optimal but it will continue to be useful. To give an example, telephoning a small sub-set can top up online interviews to make them more rep of the general public
    Counter-rant over :-)

  4. Got to agree with Simon – this is a quality thing. If someone chooses to damage their brand using a bad outbound agency then that’s their hang-up.
    There’s bad eggs right across the marketing & communications mix, the trick is to get testimonials and check the company you’re using thoroughly.
    After all, you wouldn’t select an ad agency if you hadn’t seen some previous work of theirs.

  5. asking people why they do anything is pretty much a waste of time. for lots of reasons. I’m special bias. lies. cognitive dissonance.
    mostly because they just don’t know.
    but especially since so few people now are willing to answer, the research inevitably skews towards people who answer research questions, for whatever reason.
    I can’t find the stat but I think it was in the 5% range of people are willing to take part.
    online people are more willing, if they think they can contribute to something larger than themselves… which is why longer ongoing panels for brands make sense.

  6. Given the experience I’ve had on the couple of “opportunities” I’ve had to participate in telephone research (As Penny said, when bored or such like), I tend to agree – it’s pretty painful. I generally think I should take part because it will generally give me some insight into quantitative research and so far I’ve not really liked it.
    As Faris was saying, people don’t know what they want – and particularly not when they were doing something completely different and all of sudden are being asked which car brands advertising they’ve seen in the past week, what media it was on, etc…

  7. “There are some things marketing and communications should steer well clear of and the telephone is one of them”
    … have you told T-mobile yet????

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