New data from the Pew Research Center indicate that telephone survey response rates are continuing their long downward trend.
In 1997 Pew’s research yielded average response rates of 36%. By 2006, that figure was down to 21%. In 2012 it is down to 9%.
The 2012 figure was brought lower in part by the introduction of cell phone numbers to Pew’s samples; cell phone owners responded at a lower rate than landline owners.
It’s no secret that telephone response rates have been on a steady decline, so the Pew figures are not a complete surprise (I must admit, though, that there’s something jarring about seeing the figure dip into single digits.).
The question is, should you care?
The short answer is, “yes.”
As a person who cares about data, you should be concerned about the public’s willingness to participate in research. People over time are putting less trust in societal institutions, including the survey research profession as a whole.
In this study Pew used multiple means to assess whether their survey results were impacted by lowered response; the conclusion was no, with proper weighting. They did find that survey participants tend to be more civic-minded than non-responders.
Ultimately, there is a limit to how low survey response can go before the ability to gain accurate readings on social phenomena are limited.
The long answer is, “it depends.”
Certainly, this news is more grave for people doing research in the public arena than it is for people in commercial market research, where online research is much more commonplace.
If most of your work is done using online panels or other sample sources, declining telephone response rates do not have as direct an impact on you.
However, declining survey participation is a phenomenon that extends well beyond telephone surveys. This is a societal trend that affects all research in one way or another.
In the online sphere, it is increasingly common for researchers to create their own “feedback communities” rather than relying on sample from traditional online access panels. This trend will surely continue, along with any other means there are to keep respondents engaged.
More research is needed to assess response rates in the online context; modeling a study after the Pew telephone investigation would be a great start.
Moreover, there should be more research on how the ability to survey respondents on their mobile devices affects the level and quality of survey response.
What do you think? Do you care about plummeting telephone response rates? Why or why not? Please share your opinions in the comments section below.