Do we still need the telephone?


written by Daniel Somerset

From the patent of the telephone in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell to the first demonstrated use of the mobile/cellular phone more than forty years ago today, few other devices have made such an impression on the lives of people throughout the world.


As early as 1916, businesses began using telephones to research a variety of topics, most notably in the US – presidential elections. For more than 15 years, the Literary Digest used phone sampling, paired with auto registration, to correctly predict winners of the election. However in 1936, something different happened.  Literary Digest polled more than 10 million people yet predicted Alf Landon would prevail over Franklin D. Roosevelt. Their sampling method, though vast, was incorrect. They polled their readers, car owners and telephone users – people who were largely unaffected by the Great Depression.

In that same election, George Gallup – of the Gallup Organization fame – was able to, by polling only 500,000 people, predict the winner of the election as well how far off the Literary Digest would be. This gave credibility to the new industry. Using small, correctly-framed samples, Gallup revealed that accurate predictions could be made. The science behind the polls was developing. Researchers were able to get more precise and accurate while calling fewer people.

From the 1930s on, telephone usage has quickly grown. Offices had switch rooms that were the hub of communications and most business was conducted over the phone. But in the early 1980s and again in the mid-1990s two shifts began to take hold that drastically redefined communication: cellular phones and the widespread using of the Internet. Offices have become quieter; less business is conducted on the telephone and more and more is done through the ones and zeroes of email, text messages and pdf documents zooming across fiber optics.

Technology has not only changed office life, but it has also changed home life too. Landline telephones are more at home in museums. Internet-capable smart phones and feature phones have taken over as the popular means of communications. They are powerful miniature computers that fit in our pocket.

To remain effective and not make the same mistakes that the Literary Digest made almost 80 years ago, market researchers must adapt to the new communications methods. It has become far too easy for respondents to ignore phone calls – especially unfamiliar ones. As people shifted from phones to the Internet, researchers have done that as well. They met this challenge head one and shifted most research projects online and have become incredibly accurate in achieving accurate and meaningful results.

In the US, households with landlines continue to dwindle and researchers are reluctant to use phones to reach respondents preferring online methods. But, what’s often overlooked is that while landline phone usage is shrinking, every single feature and smart phone developed and shipped to consumers today has the capability to place and receive calls; in the US that covers about 97% of the population. What’s your strategy for reaching respondents?

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