Clinton’s up 9 points! Wait, it’s 1 point! Why are polls so erratic? Nobody answers the phone anymore (thanks, robocalls!)

My story on Insedia.com
My story on Insedia.com

In case you haven’t noticed, polls are in trouble.  They missed Donald Trump’s rise to the Republican presidential nomination.  They missed Brexit.  They badly missed the 2014 Congressional elections. And so on.

Gone are the glory days — during the first Clinton era – when the science of polling was so elite that you didn’t really need to watch the news on election night.  Campaign after campaign returned results within the familiar 2.7% margin of error. Now, all polling seems to be a margin of error.

Data journalists will opine about all the cultural, mechanical and financial reasons for this. But in essence, there is only one cause:

Nobody answers the phone anymore.

It’s pretty hard to conduct a telephone poll when nobody will even say hello, let alone sincerely answer questions to help signify they are a “likely voter.”

The death of the phone call has consequences far beyond making election night exciting again, of course. It means companies can’t talk to customers…and least, they can’t call them.  Debt collectors can’t call.  Fund raisers can’t call.  Heck, mom can’t call.

(The folks at Insedia.com asked me to explore the consequences of this problem recently.  This column is the product of that research.  It was originally posted at Insedia.com, and I am cross-posting it here. You can learn more about Insedia here.)

Back to polls for a moment. Polling has been in trouble ever since the phrase “land line” was invented. During the glory days, aided by the Universal Service Fund, home telephone service penetration approached 100 percent.  And most people answered the phone, at least unless it was dinner time, or until answering machines and Caller ID allowed call screening. Land line numbers followed relatively predictable patterns, making it easy enough to get true representative samples. But as folks started cutting the cord (not TV, the land-line went first), pollsters had to adjust.  They did, fairly well.  Cell phones required more calls, as wireless customers were less likely to answer and spend their airtime minutes.  But polls muddled along.

Then, voice calling died.

It’s hard to say when that happened.  Some folks point to this moment in 2007, the first time Americans sent more text messages than placed phone calls in a month.  Of course, that was just a milestone, not a death certificate.

Calling has been terminally ill since at least then, but it is now at death’s door. Like a small infection finally overwhelms a frail, elderly person, robocalls are putting the final nail in calling’s coffin.

As anyone with a cell phone will attest, our mobile devices are not our own any more.  Daily nuisance calls from the “IRS” or the “Windows support center” or some company selling solar panels come rapid fire.  Aided by dastardly technology known as caller ID spoofing, the criminal calls can appear to come from anywhere: From our state, our town, even a family member!  Answer two or three of these calls, and you’ll consider putting your ringtone on silent for good.

Robocalling is such a problem that the FCC has summoned tech giants like Google and Verizon to Washington to fix it.  Their “strike force” is…having meetings. Meanwhile, chew on this amazing data.  A company named YouMail tries to track robocalls, and here’s what it says: Americans are hit by 87 million robocalls per day. In September, U.S. phones were blasted by 2.61 billion illegal calls.

It’s nice that we invented all this technology for the criminals, isn’t it?

Consumers and corporations are responding rationally to this. Cell phone providers like Verizon and Sprint now offer “data only” smartphone plans for consumers who….literally can’t make calls with their phones.

Back to polling one more time.  What does the death of the phone call mean to that business?  Writing in the New York Times, pollster Cliff Zukin recalls glory days when response rates were close to 80 percent. Then, things changed, even at gold standard polling organizations like the Pew Research Center.

“By 1997, Pew’s response rate was 36 percent, and the decline has accelerated. By 2014 the response rate had fallen to 8 percent,” he wrote.

The consequences for other industries are harder to quantify, but they should be obvious. Calling, at least without texting first, has become an act of rudeness. Even voice mails are out of bounds (“My voicemail message at work practically begs you to email me instead” writes one observer).

Millennials, in particular, are loathe to talk.

How loathe?  Here’s a job recruiter lamenting that job candidates don’t even want to talk.  If someone is offering you money, and you won’t hop on the phone, you certainly aren’t going to do business that way.

All hope is not lost, of course.  Pollsters are going where the people are, which means online polls are in vogue now.  It’s just that the samples and the science behind them aren’t nearly as good.  (Or, it doesn’t really exist at all).

And so it is with industry.  Mobile marketing is all the rage now — ironic as it is that it doesn’t include phone calling.  It offers exciting promise: A well-timed two-for-one ad from the coffee shop you are walking by would sure help it get rid of excess cookie inventory every afternoon.  But the potential pitfalls (privacy! Snake oil!  Authentication!) are every bit as vexing as they online polling’s shortcomings are to pollsters.

The flip side to the death of the phone call is that consumers can be reached in dozens of ways now – email, Facebook, SnapChat.  The roads to dialog are nearly endless, as are the potential to be even a bigger nuisance. Writing in Clickz, Tessa Wegert offers interesting old-fashioned advice that would fit right in with mom yelling, “Who would call a home during dinner hour.”  Marketers should stop thinking about where, and think more about when, they try to communicate with consumers, she urges.

Or perhaps they should give consumers the control they have been trying to regain for decades.  Perhaps this is an anomaly, perhaps it’s random, or perhaps it’s a counter-cultural piece of wisdom that’s infinitely valuable, but law firms have recently uncovered a shocking a point: When THEY answer the phone, they make money!

“Eighty-seven percent of those who call an attorney go on to retain one, while 58 percent do so within one week, and 64 percent only contact a single attorney,” says Findlaw.com in this research.  That’s a stunning conversion rate.  It’s message to lawyers is clear:  Don’t bother investing in advertising, invest in making sure you can always pick up the phone.

Maybe law is unique. As for Nate Silver’s polling problem, I’m not sure we can help him. But maybe, the telephone call isn’t dead.  Maybe it’s unwanted interruptions that are dead.  Maybe….if you just give them your number and back off…consumers will call you, maybe.

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About Bob Sullivan 1632 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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