There is a natural temptation to glaze into the future and make predictions. Many of these regarding the telephone survey are not positive.

“Eighty per cent of Canadians are online. The telephone polling industry will be largely dead and gone in five years. The telephone guys have got to realize that.” Angus Reid

Provocative for sure but one only needs to attend a gathering of market researchers to hear similar types of predictions. But how tenuous are these predictions? While things may change, the forces at play today suggest that the telephone will continue to be important.

The problematic analogy – the prediction that the Internet will eliminate the phone is either explicitly or implicitly compared to the way that the telephone replaced face-to-face or mail. Even if we accept that it was a relatively quick and complete substitution (in North America at least), it does not follow that the current situation will play out in the same way. The transition to the phone was simply a mode change – the fundamental sampling basis for research stayed the same (in fact it was easier in practice). The transformation to the Internet involves abandoning a basic tenet of random, representative surveys.

Economic, vested interests – at the moment, almost every major research company has the infrastructure to complete telephone surveys and while there has been a contraction over the past five years, it has been far from complete. This means that there remains a major incentive for these companies to continue to sell and defend telephone surveys. This will act as a brake on the collapse of telephone capacity in the short-term.

Telephone Innovations – the telephone survey has evolved and with the use of IVR there are new ways of using telephone field to reach respondents. These new applications of the phone include using computers and dialers to find respondents, recruit panellists or even conduct short surveys. Given current costs for traditional as well as these new techniques, the telephone will probably continue to be viable.

There is no question that online research has very quickly established itself as a dominant data collection tool. Cheaper and faster are powerful advantages. Add to that is the fact that proponents of online can point to weaknesses (declining response rates/ telephone coverage) to justify the move to online.

Online surveys are also in-tune with the social and economic world in which many North Americans live. They are conducted alone (in the privacy of one’s home/work), they are done at the respondent’s convenience and they make use of what is becoming a ubiquitous technology (the Internet). This makes them a powerful option.

The problem is that online research has faced a number of hurdles and the challenges to it as it has increased its dominance over other methods. So despite the length of time we have been conducting polls online, there remains no definitive answer as to how to measure data quality. In addition, online research will also face challenges in the form of lower cooperation rates, and higher costs to recruit and maintain panels over the next 5 to 10 years.  The movement from telephone to online might slow considerably.

The death blow to telephone surveys will be an industry-wide accepted set of best practices for reliable, replicable online research or a complete public rejection of the phone (including such things as the removal of the exception from the do-not-call list for survey research). Until that day, expect the phone to ring in the early evening.