Cutting the Cord: Implications for Market Research

Cutting the Cord

I cut the cord on my landline phone about five years ago. I never gave my home phone number to business contacts or friends. My home answering machine had become a receptacle for receiving telemarketing — and survey research — calls. I asked myself, “Why am I paying for this service?” Like me (and probably you) Americans are increasingly “cutting the cord” – for this discussion, this means discontinuing their home landline phone service in favor of a wireless-only lifestyle. For the telcos this is bad for business; for market researchers, this growing non-coverage issue means that we must continually evolve the channels we use to reach out and gather insights from consumers.

Twice a year, the CDC conducts the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) covering a variety of health topics among a large sample of American households; but the survey also provides some of the most comprehensive and reliable estimates of wireless and wireless-only phone usage in the U.S. The trend line is staggering. Since 2003, wireless-only households have grown from just under three percent (3%) of U.S. households to nearly 36% . This means that more than one-third of U.S. households are like me – they don’t even have a landline phone where they can be reached. When we add in the “wireless-primary” households – those people that keep their landline but use it to screen calls or as peace of mind in a potential household emergency or disaster (also referred to as “wireless-mostly” and defined as having a landline but “all or almost all calls are received on cell phones”) we are looking at more than half (52%) of U.S. households that are unreachable or difficult to reach by landline phone.

US Households

Source: Blumberg SJ, Luke JV. Wireless substitution: Early release of estimates from the National Health Interview Survey, January–June 2012. National Center for Health Statistics. December 2012.

Why does this matter? Research shows that wireless users do look differently demographically, have different political leanings and views, and behave differently when it comes to Internet use and engagement.

What do we do about it? One way to adjust telephone interviewing to account for this non-coverage issue has been to include interviews with wireless users along with traditional landline surveys – but this is not without its challenges:

  1. Dialing wireless sample is more complex: Phone numbers are identified as “wireless” by cross-referencing them against a wireless database to which a sample provider or call center subscribes. Federal laws prohibit any sort of “automated dialing devices,” such as a predictive dialer, from dialing known cell numbers; so call centers must allocate interviewers who are not connected to predictive dialing equipment and they must dial the numbers by hand.
  2. Mobile interviews take more time and are therefore more costly: the respondent may not have as much time to spend on the phone if they are not at home, requiring a call back to complete the interview; likewise, interviewers must screen for, and schedule a call back, if the respondent is not in a safe place to take a survey by phone, e.g. operating a motor vehicle.
  3. Cooperation rates are lower and refusal rates higher on mobile phone surveys: respondents may be more likely to feel their privacy is being invaded or be reluctant to squander precious cell phone minutes on a survey.
  4. Incentives are sometimes used to offset non-cooperation – an additional line item in the budget.

Knowing who and how many are “wireless-only” helps to fit the right data collection methodology to your audience – and may point us towards “common sense” data collection substitutions to reach the same (or similar) people in a different and less costly way.

Consider “wireless-only” households by age and race:

Table of Wireless Only Households by Age and Race

Source: Blumberg SJ, Luke JV. Wireless substitution: Early release of estimates from the National Health Interview Survey, January–June 2012. National Center for Health Statistics. December 2012.

As you can see, the percentage of households with adults age 25 to 34 that are wireless-only is substantial at between 55%-60%. Research geared to younger audiences needs to be re-calibrated to prevent under-coverage of these majority wireless-only households. But this isn’t only a phenomenon among the young; one-in-four (26%) adults age 45-64 live in wireless-only households and may have different attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyles than their landline-tethered peers. Substituting or supplementing wireless phone interviews with Internet data collection methodologies can significantly reduce costs while still reaching a broad swath of younger age groups and groups that are on the same part of the technology curve as cord-cutters.

Regardless of data collection methodology employed, adding a question to your survey that enables you to identify respondents as “wireless-only,” “wireless-primary,” or “landline,” will be helpful for screening wireless respondents down to only those with no landline phone at home (reachable no other way) or including a mix of other types of wireless users (whether they come from a landline survey, wireless survey, or online survey). Including the question will also allow you to determine whether differences between wireless and landline users do exist within the activities or behaviors your survey is measuring.

This entry would not be complete without a nod to mobile market research. Even now, we are seeing a migration to mobile surveys to supplement other data collection modes, lower costs, and improve the respondent experience. As our majority wireless-only generations age and continue to adopt a wireless-only lifestyle, as new generations are raised not knowing anything but a wireless-only lifestyle, and as the use of smart phones broadens and whatever device we’ll be using 15 years from now evolves, collecting insights from a wireless-using population will become increasingly necessary and our data collection methodologies will continue to evolve to meet these challenges.

About Gayle Vogel

Gayle Vogel is a Vice President at Edge Research, a full service marketing research firm that specializes in connecting research results with actionable insights.

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