My first job in market research was in 2001 as Director of Call Center Operations for a healthcare-focused MR firm. We did NCQA CAHPS studies using a rigid CATI sampling method, and we sold excess capacity as a field & tab provider for other research companies. We also were bidding on many government studies such as the CDC BRFSS, so I was receiving a crash course in sample theory and applying very hardcore probability sampling models to the studies we were conducting.
I had come from a customer service call center operations management background, so I knew how useful IVR (Interactive Voice Response) could be and was exploring if there was a role for that technology in a research paradigm, and through that effort was recruited by my vendor, DialTek, to become their VP of Operations. DialTek did outbound (they still power the polling of Rasmussen Reports) and inbound (lots of satisfaction surveys when calling into a customer service line) IVR surveys, and during my time there we experimented with using it as a recruitment tool for qual, to build online panels, as a partial solution to streamline phone surveys, etc… In other words, I know the technology very well and understand the best uses cases for it.
I left DialTek in 2005 to hang out my own shingle and decided that although it was useful tech for niche applications or project types, anything phone related was going to be supplanted by online and that should be my business focus. Despite the sample challenges of online research, phone (whether CATI or IVR) was going the way of the dinosaur and being the smart little mammal I am, I was going to be on the winning side of history. Most of the research I conducted between 2005 and 2010 (when I stopped conducting primary research for clients) was online, with only a smattering of CATI or IVR studies here and there for specific populations where it still made sense.
Why the history lesson?
Recently I was introduced to Scott Richards of Reconnect Research, and what they are doing has made me rethink my dismissal of phone research, especially IVR based approaches. In fact, they might have found the magic bullet to make it not just relevant again, but perhaps even a game changer.
Los Angeles-based Reconnect Research, a subsidiary of Dial800, is connecting people already on the phone with political polls and surveys. The new Inbound Calling Survey platform gives researchers fast, honest answers, while providing an additional revenue stream for carriers, and also as important, offering a consumer-friendly solution to collecting responses.
The technology behind the platform is complex, but the process is simple:
U.S. and Canadian telephone carriers route in excess of 150 billion calls per month, 5 to 10 billion of which never connect to their intended destination. These are called MIDI calls. MIDI is an acronym for Misdialed, Incomplete, Disconnected, and Inbound. Until Reconnect Research, MIDI calls have been a big expense for carriers, but now they can be a source of monetization.
Researchers on the other hand are having a very difficult time getting consumers to respond to phone surveys as most people screen their calls. In fact, response rates to phone surveys are at a historic low. This is why about 70% of research today is done online. However, the same problems now impact online as well; not only do we have a representative sample problem, but quality, response and participation rates, and access to some populations are just as challenging as ever, maybe even more so.
Utilizing their national carrier network, now when a carrier receives a MIDI call, rather than playing an intercept message and hanging up on the caller they insert a simple message inviting the person to participate in a IVR survey. To provide the right survey, people are asked a few demographic questions like age, gender & ethnicity. As an incentive to take a survey, people can earn 25 Dining Dollars to save money at restaurants nationwide.
In effect, Reconnect Research has built a truly random sample phone survey router, with access to billions of consumers annually.
Case Study – A look at the Data:
RTI International, who primarily does health research for the U.S. government, conducted a case study examining the efficacy of Inbound Calling Survey (ICS). They compared ICS to the Center for Disease Control BRFSS National health survey. BRFSS is the largest and longest running health survey in America. The study was led by Dr. Karol Krotki, Dr. Georgiy Bobashev and Burton Levine.
Comparisons to RIWI (using broken URLs as a router for microsurveys), Google Consumer Surveys (surveys to gain access to web content) and other web-based “intercept” type approaches come to mind, but the difference is that they are limited to just the online population (including mobile users). However, Reconnect Research has developed a novel use of technology that allows for a truly randomized and representative sample of virtually the entire U.S. adult population (going global is in the works). If a voice call is made, regardless of origination device type or number, they have the potential to intercept them.
Is it a perfect fit for every study type? No. Over the past decade we’ve learned how to use the visual power of the web to create new research approaches that couldn’t be conducted in a telephone setting. Over the past 5 years, we’ve also learned to optimize mobile devices for deeply engaging, iterative approaches that don’t lend themselves to a voice-only setting or a single interaction.
However, many use cases do come to mind that this could be ideal for, chief among them political polling, governmental surveys like those conducted by the CDC, brand trackers, media exposure studies, A&U studies or anything else that doesn’t rely on a visual component, is (ideally) under 1o minutes in length and most importantly, requires a true random sample of a population. That is still a big chunk of the research market. I also suspect there are plays here related to panel building, recruiting, market sizing, and a host of other applications that smart researchers will start experimenting with.
The speed and cost savings are immense too; comparable at least, and often far better, than using online panels.
Over the past year or two discussions around automation, agile research, AI and the “cheaper, faster, better” paradigm have ruled much of the discussion about the future of MR. Generally the assumption has been that the context for those trends was online, but that was a mistake. Reconnect Research embodies all of those trends and brings telephone research back to the table as not just a viable method, but in many cases the best one.
As an old school telephone and IVR researcher who thought the best days of those approaches were a decade in the past, I am thrilled to find out that I am wrong and that Scott and his team are innovating to make them an important part of the researcher toolbox again.