Leave me alone: why SMS surveys are better than calls and questionnaires

“Hi, we’re running a survey…” I don’t really like turning people down, but I always just keep walking when people come up to me and say something like that on the street or at a store. And if they call my cellphone, I just hang up. Lots of people don’t answer their phones in the first place if they see a number they don’t recognize. Nobody in today’s world has time to chat with strangers, though the good news is that there are much better ways to gather opinions from people. For example, SMS surveys.

How much do they drink in Sweden?

A few years ago, some scientists from Sweden’s National Food Agency wanted to figure out how much water Swedes drink. The World Health Organization recommends two liters a day, though international studies have revealed practices ranging from about half a glass to three liters each day.

The scientists focused their study on a Swedish municipality called Ale, and they started by making phone calls. Of the people who picked up the phone, two thirds opted in to receive monthly SMSs for a year with questions about how much water they drink. The first thing study participants received was an SMS reminding them not to forget to count how many glasses of water they drink over the coming days. Then they got an SMS with the questions (Apifonica offers similar tools for SMS surveys).

Each survey the participants completed earned them a lottery ticket that would otherwise cost one euro. The scientists figured that would help incentivize and motivate them to participate further in the study.

Nobody knows how important the role played by the lottery tickets was, though the study participants did excellent work: 73% of them responded to 10 or more SMSs over the course of the year. It turned out that people living in Ale Municipality average right around what the WHO recommends, though women drink more water than men. That remains a mysterious Swedish anomaly—in other countries, men are the ones who outpace their female counterparts.

The scientists noted that some participants gave up on the study when they had technical difficulties or weren’t sure how to send SMSs (in all likelihood, members of the older generation). Others said they were busy, forgot, or didn’t want to pay for the reply. In the end, however, the scientists in charge of the study estimate that the percentage of respondents they lost was in the single digits. SMSs turned out to be an excellent way to run a survey.

Forewarned is fore…loyal?

A major problem with the study, on the other hand, is that the Swedish scientists lost over half their potential participants right off the bat. Their data as well as research done in the US shows that only about 40% of people answer the phone when they don't recognize the number.

But here too, according to researchers at the University of Adelaide and their colleagues, SMSs come to the rescue. Their theory was that people would be more inclined to participate in surveys if they received an SMS prior to the call. The scientists selected 9,000 random Australian cell numbers and divided them equally into two groups: one received SMSs before they were called; the other did not.

As was expected, the first group proved more willing to participate in the survey, with a rejection rate that was 24% lower than that of the second group.

The other side of the tracks

Asking prim and proper Swedes to calculate how much water they drink, or even chatting with thousands of random Australians—that’s one thing. But working with more challenging demographics is quite another. They need research just as much as anyone else; the issue is getting them to work with scientists and seeing what they think of SMSs. Some specialists at the University of Michigan Medical School dove into that issue with a pilot study of twenty African-Americans from Detroit’s West Side. In other words, not the most prosperous city in the US.

The scientists asked the Detroiters about their behavior when it comes to health problems. “You’ve had a sore throat for four days and feel sick.” “You fell down the stairs, your head is bleeding, you are confused, and you can tell your leg is broken.” The respondents were asked what they would do in those situations: call an ambulance, visit a doctor, or ignore the problem. The survey was performed using both paper and SMSs, and the participants were asked in detail about how convenient it was to use the SMS method.

Their answers showed why SMSs are superior to other survey tools: the messages get there faster (even faster than emails), answering them is easier than filling out a long questionnaire, and they’re what people use to communicate anyway. The downside is that SMSs are easy to forget about when you’re busy with something else.

Taken together, what these studies show is something we’ve known since cellphones became a mass-market phenomenon: most of us find it easier to send an SMS than to fill out a long questionnaire or take a call. Long phone conversations are a relic saved for special situations or the relatives you’d rather just talk with if it means you don’t have to teach them how to send SMSs.

SMSs also save time, money, and mental anguish for researchers themselves: no longer do they have to call thousands of numbers only to get turned down over and over.

All self-respecting businesses want to know what their customers think of them. Using an SMS messaging API like Apifonica’s one lets you create specialized software used to send out SMS surveys. Alternatively, you can integrate SMSs into your existing systems.

Want to give that a try? Read through the documentation for Apifonica SMS API and get your free API key.

Not sure where to start? Get in touch with our sales department.