Telephone Survey Response Rates Have Plunged, But May Finally Be Stabilizing

January 16, 2018

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Industries | Market Research

Telephone survey response rates have plummeted over the past 20-odd years, but may have reached their floor, according to a Gallup study whose results are supported by other research. Gallup’s data indicates that response rates for its Gallup Poll Social Series plunged from 28% in 1997 to a low of 5% in 2015, before increasing a couple of points to 7% last year.

Gallup cites another study – from the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) – to support its findings. That research likewise found that leading survey research firms had seen declines in landline response rates from 15.7% in 2008 to 9.3% in 2015. Cellphone response rates had also dropped during the same period, from 11.7% to 7%.

Meanwhile, a study released last year by the Pew Research Center found that response rates for landline telephone polls had dropped dramatically from 36% in 1997 to 9% in 2012. However, as with the Gallup research, Pew’s study found a stabilization, with that 9% response rate remaining consistent through 2016.

The Pew study also noted that telephone polls tend to overstate civic and political engagement. And while telephone surveys still over-represented college graduates, there had been an easing in the under-representation of young adults.

Telephone Contact, Cooperation Rates Also Down

The challenges in gaining telephone survey response rates are the result of several factors.

For example, contact rates have plummeted in recent years, from 65% in 1997 to just 27% in 2017. Contact rates refer to the percentage of households in the target sample who answer the phone. Contact rates have been hampered in recent years by an increasing use of phones for texting and internet browsing as opposed to voice calls. Applications blocking phone numbers on cell phones have also played a part in declining contact rates, particularly as cell phones have grown more influential in telephone surveys.

Meanwhile, just getting someone on the phone doesn’t mean that the task is finished. Cooperation rates – the percentage of respondents who agree to complete the interview at the survey’s outset – halved in the 20-year period from 1997 to 2017, from 50% to 25%.

And the completion rate – the percentage of those who start the survey who actually complete it – has also dropped, though not as precipitously (from 92% to 84%).

Gallup stresses that low response rates do not impact the quality of the research conducted, but that they do result in researchers having to devote more resources to the surveys.

Recently, separate Gallup research found that a large US university’s alumni survey – a web survey – achieved a response rate of 14%, aided by above-average response rates among those provided with a $5 incentive.

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