Has the Do Not Call Registry Turned Out To Be a Survey Researcher’s Best Friend?

by Rob Farbman, Senior Vice President

A government program (almost) everyone can love
The National Do-Not-Call Registry, which allows consumers to restrict their phone numbers from telemarketing calls, has been by almost all accounts a huge success. The DNC gained mass popularity at its inception in 2003, and it signed up 60 million telephone numbers in its first six months. While the list’s growth slowed after the initial burst, current estimates are that 45% of all landline telephone numbers are on the Registry.
In addition, opinion polls have shown that the vast majority of those who have signed up for the DNC Registry believe that the list works and that they are receiving significantly fewer telemarketing calls. The DNC Registry has become something rare – a federal government program that is liked by almost everyone. Even more amazing, this program is largely self-financed with the fees charged by the DNC Registry (for information that telemarketers need to remove those on the Registry from their call lists) covering most of the program’s costs.

Research calls are not included among restricted calls whether they are for market research or opinion research

While the DNC Registry prohibits telemarketers from calling numbers that have been registered on the list, there are a number of exemptions. The DNC allows telemarketers to call people who have conducted business with that company within the previous 18 months. In addition, calls that do not involve solicitation are exempt. Among calls not prohibited by the DNC law are those placed on behalf of the politicians who wrote the law itself. While political organizations may be soliciting donations or votes, they are not (technically) selling anything, and are therefore exempt. Likewise, calls from charities are not covered by the list. Finally, research calls are not included among restricted calls whether they are for market research or opinion research.
How has the DNC helped or hurt response rates for survey researchers? Some theories…
Many who have feared that the DNC would severely worsen response rates for survey research were unaware of the fact that research calls were excluded from the law. This lack of understanding of the law is widespread. A 2004 Harris survey showed more than two-thirds of respondents were “unsure” whether research calls were allowed under the DNC law.
So, being that the DNC has not affected the number of research calls an individual on the list might receive, can an argument be made to support the theory that the DNC has hurt response rates? How can the existence of a DNC list that does not restrict research calls change a person’s decision to participate when they receive these calls? One argument is the notion that the DNC may have psychologically hardened the reluctance of some who were already unlikely to participate in surveys. Because they may now have the mindset that they should never receive calls, they may have increased their propensity to be an “initial refusal”. That is, they no longer wait for the caller’s introduction explaining why they should participate. Or, they are not listening to the interviewer long enough to understand that the purpose of the call is not sales, but research. So, the theory goes that some of these refusals may have eventually relented had they not acquired their newfound “Do-Not-Call Mentality”.
There are many arguments to counter this theory. Declining response rates have been a challenge for years for researchers conducting telephone surveys, largely due to the proliferation of unwanted telephone calls. It seems fair to assume that receiving a telephone call to participate in a survey was less bothersome in 1980 than it was in 2000 simply because people became fatigued with the mass quantity of calls coming from all sources. It also seems fair to assume that with unwanted calls vastly reduced through the DNC Registry, the phone calls that do get through would be met with more tolerance, if not some interest.
While someone who had always refused to participate in research calls prior to the DNC registry would still refuse to participate after signing up for the DNC, what about those who are not always immediate refusals? Fortunately for researchers, most people are not a firm “no” at all times when asked to participate in a survey. The vast majority will decide whether to participate based on personal factors, chief among them having the time to participate at that particular moment. Many would argue that with no change in the number of research calls a person might receive, and the radically reduced “competition” for their time from telemarketers, that the DNC may, if anything, help response rates.
Some hard data on the topic…
Fortunately several researchers have looked into this issue, enabling us to move beyond theories. At the 2005 conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) in Miami Beach, a panel was convened to review this topic, all supported by research studies.
One paper, presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not find evidence that the DNC Registry had helped response rates but also noted – “few clear patterns emerged which would allow us to reasonably attribute changes to the launching of the DNC. While it is clear that the DNC Registry has not helped improve response rates, it is unclear if the launching of the DNC Registry contributed to the erosion of those rates either.”
But a study (confined to the state of Pennsylvania) by the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College concluded that the DNC had in fact improved response rates. Their paper notes that DNC registrants were less likely in their study to simply hang up the telephone without explanation. They conclude: “The research finds no evidence that respondents at those (DNC) numbers are any less inclined to participate in opinion research than are unregistered numbers. In fact, the data indicates that DNC registrants may be more cooperative than non-registrants”. Berwood Yost, the Center’s Director said his study shows that “in an era of declining response, the DNC list may begin to turn the tide. In any event, the DNC registry does not sound the death knell for telephone research as some online researchers want people to believe.”
Edison Media Research’s experience suggests that the DNC has made our jobs somewhat less difficult because of the reduced call volume consumers now receive. Despite this, other factors reducing response rates have not improved and in some cases have gotten worse. These obstacles include calls from telemarketers disguised as researchers. Another bane of the survey researcher’s existence are “Push Polls” where calls are made on behalf of a political organization that pose as a survey but are really meant to disseminate damaging information about a candidate (“Are you in favor or do you oppose the Senator’s plan to negotiate with terrorists?” would be an example).
Survey research organizations such as AAPOR and the National Council on Public Polls are doing their best to challenge these practices. But even if the Do-Not-Call Registry has managed to help researchers, the “fake poll” in all its ugly forms will likely continue to make the lives of legitimate researchers a little more difficult.
Edison Media Research is working to improve response rates in other ways including; conducting extensive training of interviewers; stating clearly at the introduction of each survey that we are calling for research and no other purpose; pre-testing questionnaires to insure smooth, engaging interviews; offering convenient call-back times for respondents to fit into their schedules; and keeping interviews to reasonable lengths to avoid “drop-offs” in mid-survey.
The following were used as sources in this article. All were presented at the American Association for Public Opinion Research May 2005 Annual Conference:
“Has the National Do Not Call Registry Helped or Hurt Survey Participation Rates?” Michael Link (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Ali Mokdad and Dale Kulp.
“The Do Not Call Registry: Friend or Foe? The Effect of Do Not Call Lists on Survey Response”. Berwood Yost (Center for Opinion Research, Franklin & Marshall College), Jennifer Harding, Christian Abbott and Angela Knittle.
“The Impact of the National Do Not Call Registry on Social Survey Response”
Z. Joan Wang (REDA International, Inc.), Elham-Eid Alldredge, Jian Zhu, Michelle Cantave, N. Craig Gilmore.