Saturday, 26 July 2014

Telephone Surveys

Have you ever been the subject of a random telephone call? 

Its a trick (cold calling) sometimes played by businesses trying to sell double glazing or something similar. The call usually starts with a stranger saying that they are conducting a telephone survey. Sometimes offered with the chance to win a prize.   But there are also genuine telephone surveys being conducted by market research companies on behalf of someone else. Cold calling is happening to me more and more and to be honest I have little interest in taking part part. (I also never answer 'withheld number' calls) But even with a number, I am usually very polite about declining to take part. 

However, if the caller is persistent I go into mode two, when I will always give them the most unbelievable answers. So if I was asked the question - 'have you visited a canal in the last two weeks', I would say 'I have watched German television almost everyday in the last two weeks'. After they have explained that they meant the inland waterways, and not Kanal, I would say yes and give a specific number like 437 times in the last 14 days, 411 of which were while taking rover on his last walk in the evening. If that fails to work, I can always do the obvious and ask them to hang on for a moment, then put the phone next to the radio. Its amazing sometimes how long they will hold. Maybe thats because they are enjoying the radio program.

I am thinking of tape recording about the way that Tom Mabe deals with cold callers. Which is an all time classic and one that has led to a whole genera of 'cold calling recordings' I could have some fun by playing Tom Mabe's recording back for them.  Click Here to listen.  
This sort of independent market research is conducted almost everywhere. Its even used to establish visits and visitor numbers to the canal system.
For a long time I have been deeply suspicious about published visitor numbers to CaRT's controlled waterways.  There is also quite a subtle but significant difference between visit and visitors. Where both words are sometime loosely  interchangeable. Moving around on the canals and rivers, I find that there are large sections where we see very few people using the towpath. I have often remarked that we have seen more boats than people on the towpath. However, I suppose for every visitor hotspot there must also be a quite large sections that form visitor coldspots. 

My partner in life worked in a university mathematics department for 27 years. She says when you do a survey, its easier if you know what what you want the answer to be. So you might conclude she knows how many beans make five. But we also have a friend that used to head up a statistical research department. When I asked him about the process. He said what you need to know is, what are the questions being asked. Because its very little to do with the number of people being interviewed. But the outcome is everything to do with the questions being asked. I could see where he was coming from. 

Now call me old and cynical, but I think that if it was possible to monitor the usage of the towpath and at the same time establish who was a real visitor attracted by what the canal has to offer. The number would be quite low, certainly not the astronomical figures we see bandied about. 

Quote CaRT: Our waterways play host to 10.5 million visitors a year.
Quote CaRT  During August, 5.4 million people visited a canal or river over our busiest fortnight.
Simon Salem, marketing director of the Canal & River Trust, comments: “The nation’s canals are great places to visit and it is fantastic to see more people using them. This summer we’ve seen more people walking along their local towpath, running and cycling, taking advantage of the nice weather to ditch the car and travel canal-side instead, or just enjoying the calm and tranquillity offered by our waterside environment. With half term approaching, there is still plenty to see and do at this time of year as the seasons change and autumn’s colours are displayed. I’d encourage people to come and enjoy it for themselves.
So more than half the number of visitors to the canal actually come in a two week period. However, I recognise Simon's comment as a nice 'puff piece' of marketing spin when I see it. Most people would think that the number of 'real' visitors attracted to the canal because its a nice place to be, would be quite small. It would be small for many reasons. The biggest reason would be the vast number of other real visitor attraction for a family to visit. Theme park or the Canal - its an easy choice for a family day out. The weather would also discourage most people other than boaters and fishermen from spending anything other than the warmest of summer days on the canals. The overgrown sections of towpath would also discourage a lot of families because of the problem of mud, potholes, dog droppings and other such infectious, tripping and slipping hazards. Most adults also enthusiastically encourage their children to stay away from canals, for very obvious reasons. So I believe that in the main, Joe Public and his family are unlikely to want to spend time walking on or around the canals for pleasure. 

The canal in its current state just doesn't stack up as a real visitor attraction. Well if you are interested in canal art such as graffiti, as an artistic appreciator or as a vandal, then you might want to visit. If you are interested in how many different coloured plastic bottles you can find in an hour, then you might want to visit. A canal museum might be a real attraction, but even then only for the odd visit. The canal is not somewhere that you would come back to visit week in week out. The towpath is quite bland, unless you have other reasons for being there. So who are the key visitors to the canals. If someone cycles, jogs or walks to work every day and part of that journey takes in a section of the canal. Are these individuals - actually 'genuine' pleasure visitors to the canal.  Or are they only on the towpath as a convenient short cut to their place of work.

So to find the true visitor/visits data would require a long complex questionnaire. Unless you are not interested in why the individual is there and just want a simplistic headcount. But what value could there be in a basic visitor/visit headcount.  To make matters even more complex you would have to filter out visits to non CaRT controlled waterways. Plus a whole raft of other things like ponds and lakes.

The Canal and River Trust has conducted on their behalf, a regular two weekly telephone survey into the number of visitor/visits to the canals under its control. Conducting telephone interviews with around 12,000 people each year.  The reason for this is because part of the DEFRA funding requirement requires the trust to reach certain 'target figures' to maintain the funding.

So, you can imagine that I was rather interested when I happened upon some research done by a research student into the value of telephone surveys. Steve Earlich is a Phd research student who produces a regular podcast about his Phd studies. A recent podcast covered the topic of conducting random telephone surveys. According to Steve's research from all the people who are called. Only 6% will agree to answer the questions. However only 2% will actually finish the survey. Apparently, the greater the number of questions asked, the less the number of people who will continue to answer until the end of the survey.

Well I have digressed away from the main point. So I wonder what your favourite ploy is for getting rid of cold callers?

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