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Cost-benefit comparisons of IVR, SMS, and phone survey methods

In his MERL Tech London Lightning Talk back in February, Jan Liebnitzky of Firetail provided a research-backed assessment of the costs and benefits of using interactive voice response surveys (IVR), SMS surveys, and phone surveys for MERL purposes.

First, he outlined the opportunities and challenges of using phones for survey research:

  • They are a good means for providing incentives. And research shows that incentives don’t have to be limited to airtime credits. The promise of useful information is sometimes the best motivator for respondents to participate in surveys.
  • They are less likely to reach subgroupsThough mobile phones are ubiquitous, one challenge is that groups like women, illiterate people and people in low-connectivity areas do not always have access to them. Thus, phones may not be as effective as one would hope for reaching the people most often targeted by aid programs.
  • They are scalable and have expansive reach. Scripting and outsourcing phone-based surveys to call centers takes time and capacity. Fixed costs are high, while marginal costs for each new question or respondent is low. This means that they can be cost effective (compared to on the ground surveys) if implemented at a large scale or in remote and high risk areas with problematic access.

Then, Jan shared some strategies for using phones for MERL purposes:

1. Interactive Voice Response Surveys

    • These are pre-recorded and automated surveys. Respondent can reply to them by voice or with the numerical keypad.
    • IVR has been used in interactive radio programs in Tanzania, where listening posts were established for the purpose of interacting with farmers. Listening posts are multi-channel, web-based platforms that gather and analyze feedback and questions from farmers that listen to particular radio shows. The radio station will run the IVR, and farmers can call in to the radio show to submit their questions or responses. These are effective because they are run through a trusted radio shows. However, it is important that farmers receive answers for the questions they ask, as this incentivizes future participation.

2. SMS Surveys

    • These make use of mobile messaging capabilities to send questions and receive answers. Usually, the SMS survey respondent will either choose between fixed multiple choice answers or write a freeform response. Responses, however, are limited to 160 characters.
    • One example of this is U-Reporter, a free SMS social monitoring tool for community participation in Uganda. Polls are sent to U-Reporters who answer back in real time, and the results are then shared back with the community.

3. Phone Surveys

    • Phone surveys are run through call centers by enumerators. They function like face to face interview, but over the phone.
    • As an example, phone surveys were used as a monitoring tool by an agriculture extension services provider. Farmers in the area subscribed to receive texts from the provider with tips about when and how to plant crops. From the list of subscribers, prospective respondents were sampled and in-country call centers were contracted to call up to 1,000 service users to inquire about quality of service, behaviour changes and adoption of new farming technologies.
    • The challenges here were that the data were only as good as call staff was trained. Also, there was a 80% drop off rate, partly due to the language limitations of call staff.

Finally, Jan provided a rough cost and effectivity assessment for each method:

  • IVR survey: medium cost, high response
  • SMS survey: low cost, low response
  • Phone survey: high cost, medium response

Jan closed with a question: What is the value of these methods for MERL?

His answer: The surveys are quick and dirty and, to their merit, they produce timely data from remote areas at a reasonable cost. If the data is made use of, it can be effective for monitoring. However, these methods are not yet adequate for use in evaluation.

For more, watch Jan’s Lightning Talk below!