Q. What kind of response do you get to mail versus phone versus e-mail polling?

Self-administered surveys are making a comeback, constituting a growing percentage of survey research. This trend is driven by at least two changes. One is obvious: the growth and expansion of the reach of the internet, which is now used by about three-fourths of the general public and an even higher percentage of professionals and other groups we sometimes poll. That, along with growing expertise about how to construct and administer online surveys, has made it possible to conduct many surveys online that formerly were done by telephone or by mail. Over the past few years, the Pew Research Center has conducted online surveys of several interesting populations including foreign policy experts, scientists and journalists. However, with a couple of exceptions we are not conducting surveys of the general public online because there is currently no way to randomly sample adults by e-mail. We can sample and contact people in other ways, and attempt to get them to complete a survey online, but that creates other challenges for political and social surveys like the ones we do.

The second change driving the growth of self-administered surveys is something called “address-based sampling” or ABS. Mail surveys of the public have always drawn samples of addresses from lists, but only in the past few years have high quality address lists developed by the postal service been available to survey researchers. These lists, in conjunction with household data available from a range of lists such as those maintained by business and consumer database companies, now make it possible to construct very precise samples of households. These households can then be contacted by mail or even by telephone if a telephone number can be matched to them from commercial lists. Many survey organizations, including some working for the federal government, are using these address-based samples as an alternative to traditional telephone surveys. ABS provides a way to reach certain kinds of households that are difficult to reach with telephone surveys, such as those whose residents have only a cell phone. Interestingly, the response rates and the quality of data obtained from ABS surveys have been comparable to what’s obtained from telephone surveys, and the costs are similar as well.

By the way, sometimes people ask us why we don’t just conduct polls on our website. One of the answers to our list of Frequently Asked Questions addresses this. Take a look.

Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research, Pew Research Center