As the world continues to get smarter and more efficient with each software update, every industry must adapt and opinion research is no different. Last week, Apple announced dozens of heavily anticipated new features as part of their iOS 13 update, including a filter setting to send unknown calls straight to voicemail.
As anyone with a cell phone will tell you, the number of unknown, unwanted, and unwelcome phone calls has exploded from what seemed to be a rare occasion, to several times a day. Last year alone, Americans received 48 billion — that’s billion, not million — unwanted calls, an increase of 56 percent from the previous year. Ranging from random automated calls from “your car warranty as expired” to “an IRS collection agency,” these calls are at best annoying and at worst perpetrating outright fraud.
Unfortunately, in the tidal wave of incoming calls, there’s one industry that, arguably, is taking the biggest hit: legitimate opinion research. Things have not been going well for our industry when it comes to the ability to reach people on the phone. Now, the double whammy of the increased proliferation of illegitimate calls and new technology coming from phone developers — we can only assume Android phones will be right behind with a similar offering — could spell doom for a survey and opinion research as we know it.
To put this in context, 20 years ago we might have needed 20 phone numbers in our sample for every one completed interview. That number is now approaching 100. Pretty soon we are going to be running out of voters. In fact, it’s already a challenge in smaller population districts where you might have 10,000 registered voters.
If we need to call 100 people to get a completed interview, that would mean more than 100 completed interviews would be a challenge. Even if the 100:1 ratio is an extreme example at 50:1 we are looking at 200 completed interviews and a margin of error that makes the results less than helpful. Quality (i.e. professional) pollsters have the methodology down to still get good results, and overcome these challenges, but the days of easily completing a 15-minute-plus survey in three nights are behind us.
This isn’t just bad for pollsters, but also campaigns since costs have increased exponentially as it becomes tougher and tougher to reach people on the phone. These issues, outside of the campaign world, have mostly been solved by moving research online. That has created new and innovative ways to get an understanding of public opinion and measure movement. The challenge that campaigns run into is the fact that once you get below the state level, the online panels are typically not robust enough to ensure a proportional response in, say, a state senate district.
But this isn’t just a campaign problem, there’s also a societal issue happening here. Understanding the mood of the public is an important part of our democracy. In a representative form of government, our public officials need to be able to have an understanding of where there constituents are on an issue and how that compares to the country at large. This isn’t to say that every vote should be based on survey results, but this knowledge allows for more informed decisions from our elected officials — whether they decide to factor it in is another story.
With the increased difficulties of reaching people and the increase in costs, many public polls are likely to get worse and worse. With sponsors unable, or unwilling, to spend the money to ensure proper results, we’re either going to see less information being shared, or more questionable results from public “research.” This means a much less efficient and a less representative government in our opinion.
But before we all get too depressed here, there’s hope. Researchers will have to, if they already haven’t, diversify their methods to include text messages, emails, web ads, and social media content to gather responses.
Instead of 100-percent phone and online surveys, the norm will likely become a mixture across the spectrum. Some firms will be dragged into these changes kicking and screaming, just like many researchers 15 years ago hesitated to move from live phone calls to online surveys. But if companies don’t adapt to the world that we live in, they’re not likely to survive.
Several firms, including our online research firm Trendency Research, Civiqs, and Change Research have launched new and innovative approaches to reduce cost and increase accuracy.
But the fact remains that opinion research in four-to-five years will likely look very different than it does today. The corporate world has understood this for a while and are the ones adapting the quickest.
Campaigns are typically very slow in adopting new methods and time will tell if the movement to new ways of measuring public opinion are adopted or ignored until they have no choice. Regardless, change is happening. While Apple’s new technology isn’t going to help, it certainly didn’t create the problem.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies.