Why it’s too soon to hang-up on CATI.

Posted by Gregor Jackson on the 24th July, 2019
It is evident that online is not a panacea to organisations’ research requirements. In an age where the availability of high-quality insight has never been more important in order for businesses to make informed decisions, keeping an open methodological mind is paramount.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that telephone interviewing was the default mode of data collection on many market research projects. Even with the emergence of online surveys in the early part of the century, computer aided telephone interviewing (CATI) was still seen as the primary fieldwork method which few projects could discount without serious consideration. Speed, value for money, availability of sample, replicability, representativity and accuracy were among the key attractions of this technique for buyers and suppliers alike.

Nowadays, telephone interviewing as a proportion of market research overall is lower than in the past, driven in part by a decline in the use of landlines and the rise of online panels. The previously unquestioning stance that telephone is superior to self-selective techniques is no longer credible. With internet penetration more than nine in ten of the population and digital the preferred mode of communication for most people , it is not surprising that online is the most used quant method for over three-quarters of agencies. Simply put, online data collection offers a myriad advantages in terms of cost, flexibility, speed and efficiency.

However, it’s too soon to write-off telephone just yet since with the emergence of mobile it remains a key tool for market researchers and insight specialists. Although online is the dominant quant technique in most of Walnut’s research, telephone continues to be a key feature of our tracking and ad hoc work, either as a stand-alone technique or a mixed-methods study. We benefit from having an award-winning in-house call-centre in Bedford (MRS Operational Awards for Best Data Collection Telephone and Training & Development, 2017), and are proud to be one of the few agencies to hold both ISO 20252 and ISO 27001, the international quality standards for Market Research and Information Security.

Examples where CATI can add real value include:

Customer and membership research.
While the majority of market research with consumers and the public can be undertaken using sample sourced by the agency, customer experience and membership surveys are still largely dependent on records and contact details being supplied by the buyer. Telephone – landline or mobile – remains a key form of contact for organisations communicating with their customers, members, supporters and stakeholders among other target audiences.

Telephone comes into its own where email addresses are not available and with less digitally savvy sections of society such as older people and those with a physical disability. Participants on the whole respond warmly to human contact which can result in higher response rates than in an exclusively online survey. Conveniently, most survey platforms nowadays are multi-method, facilitating the merging of telephone and online data.

Business surveys.
Telephone is better positioned than online panels to yield a representative sample of businesses, especially for specific sectors and business sizes. With businesses’ telephone numbers and profile information commercially available, telephone permits a more targeted approach. In contrast, online business panels tend to be limited in size and in their profile, minimising their value beyond a broad-brush view of UK business opinion. Even then, online business samples tend to be small and the respondents relatively junior.

CATI remains the most effective way to make contact with senior decision makers since phone calls are not as easily ignored or discarded as letters and emails. A successful approach to interviewing senior business respondents is built around flexibility and sensitivity (e.g. operating an appointment-based system) and using experienced business survey interviewers. Telephone fieldwork is also highly replicable meaning it can be used in future surveys to more accurately monitor any shifts in opinion.

Locally targeted consumer research.
Few online research panels are large enough to be able to deliver robust and representative samples in tightly defined geographies such as local authorities and parliamentary constituencies. For those insight managers needing to assess local attitudes to a new product or policy-makers evaluating a local service, telephone is highly effective at producing robust and reliable samples of local communities.

Targeting specific consumer groups.
The unavoidable truth is that certain parts of the population are under-represented on online panels such as the less tech-savvy, socio-economic C2DEs and older people. Often a telephone survey represents the most effective way of capturing insights from consumer groups where doubts exist about the expediency of online.

Of course, there will be other instances which lend themselves to CATI but no one is seriously suggesting this heralds the start of a great come back from telephone data collection. Yet it is evident that online is not a panacea to organisations’ research requirements. In an age where the availability of high-quality insight has never been more important in order for businesses to make informed decisions, keeping an open methodological mind is paramount.

As the human understanding agency, Walnut uses the full range of techniques to understand human behaviour at the deepest level. Embracing the long-established virtues of telephone data collection should feature highly in this equation.

Meet the Author: Gregor Jackson
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