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Text Message Surveys: The Perfect Complement To Your Research

By Chris McCarthy on January 4, 2016

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SMS is a great way to interact quickly and reliably with a broad base of possible respondents, but even we at Instant Census don’t claim it can completely replace other, more traditional, modes of data collection. It can, however, be a powerful supplementary tool no matter your primary mode of data gathering. Whether you’re calling people manually or sending out surveys by snail mail, adding an SMS component to your survey methodology can generally improve your ability to interact with recipients and gather data.

Email Or Web-Based Surveys

Surveys deployed over Email are among the best and easiest to supplement with SMS. At the most basic level, SMS can be used as a reminder/delivery system for web surveys. A study by Mavletova & Couper (Journal of Survey Statistics and Methodology (2014) 2, 498-518) indicates that surveys sent via email got a much higher response rate when they were accompanied by an SMS reminder. This little bit of personalized prompting was enough to get respondents to open and take the survey in much higher numbers than email alone.

If you know your respondents have web-enabled phones, this can be even further extended by using SMS to deliver the web survey directly. While this might require minor redesign of the survey to accommodate the increased number of mobile respondents, 53% of Emails are opened on phones, making it likely many users will be attempting to take it on mobile devices anyway. By serving the link directly through SMS, you can remove the need for them to take any intermediary action between receiving the reminder text and beginning the survey.

You can also use SMS with email to get some limited subset of answers from people who fail to respond. While you probably cannot ask the entire survey this way, boiling it down to one or three really essential questions and sending those out to people who, despite SMS reminders, will not take the web survey can be a way to get some limited information from non-responders. Some information is better than no information, and a supplementary SMS survey of the most valuable questions can help flesh out data in those areas about which you care the most.

Telephone Surveys

How SMS can supplement a telephone survey largely depends on whether or not you have consent to text before making the phone call. While this is a necessary prerequisite to sending any SMS messages, if you get it early it changes the way SMS can be used.

Presuming you get consent to text before making the phone calls, SMS can be a useful tool for scheduling the actual call with recipients. SMS has significantly more wriggle room than ordinary calls in terms of when you can successfully use it to make contact with people. Sending initial text messages to gather preliminary data and schedule the actual call for a time convenient to the respondent can ensure someone picks up the phone when you make the primary call.

Additionally, you can use SMS to gather some initial data about the subject, allowing you to skip over, for example, basic personal and demographic information before diving into the questions that really matter, and might require further explication over the phone. You could even use this to deliver a different over the phone survey to people depending on the initial information you received from them.

Assuming you don’t have consent to text before calling the respondent, the actual phone call can be a great time to get that consent. In this regard, the use of the phone might be more supplementary to the SMS than vice versa. Having gotten the respondent to agree to receiving SMS messages from you, you can then use SMS to ask shorter, less intrusive follow-ups. This can help you dig deeper into results, or even keep broad track of changing views over time. You might even use this subsequent SMS contact to schedule future calls.

Snail Mail Surveys

If you’re sending out snail mail surveys to people for whom you already have consent to text, then the obvious supplementary use of SMS is as a reminder/confirmation of receipt, much like an email survey. If you haven’t received the survey back from someone, you can use SMS not just to remind them to take it, but also to help diagnose potential postal problems. Did they receive it? Did they send it back? Do you need to update their address? All of these potential problems can be diagnosed and fixed through SMS.

Also in common with email and web surveys is the potential to use SMS to grab the most vital information from non-responders. If, after a certain number of reminders, someone still does not fill out and send in the survey, you can use SMS to deploy the most essential subset of it.

If, on the other hand, you are mailing people for whom you do not have consent to text (probably the more likely situation), then this is once again an ideal time to get it. Including a question in the survey asking for phone number and consent to text is possible, but given the times involved in postal service, it is probably better to include a text-in number with the mailing. This would allow recipients to initiate contact immediately by simply texting you, and could allow you to hook into the above uses of SMS.

This also allows you to send quick follow-ups, and possibly schedule other future surveys, by mail or in any other mode. In this regard, SMS in conjunction with a mailing can be a good, albeit expensive and time consuming, way to integrate numerous people into a larger survey process.

In-Person Surveys

Many of the same possible applications of SMS apply to in-person surveys as they do to telephone surveys. SMS can be a great tool to schedule something in person (if you are interacting with the subject far enough ahead to be managing that) or to get an initial set of data from them to inform the in person survey.

As with the other modes, there is also use to sending messages after the in-person survey. You can gain consent during the in-person element, and then use SMS to follow up in various ways. From quick check-ins on some behavior or action, to scheduling future interactions, it can help you stay in contact with, and build a relationship with, someone you were able to survey once in person. This can help you get a more complete picture of their behavior or experiences, even if you are never able to survey them in person again.


If you are already employing a mixed-mode survey, the benefits of adding SMS are even greater. By leveraging the power of SMS to ask quick, unobtrusive, and repeating questions, you can keep better track of what your subjects are doing, and maximize the impact of the other modes. Between helping coordinate with other modes, and winnowing down questions in other modes to maximize their impact, SMS adds a quick, responsive element to any existing multi-mode survey approach.

The Takeaway

Whether you’re using Instant Census SMS surveys as a complement to other survey tools or as your primary mode of performing research, they’re a great way to gather data more quickly and perform research much faster than using traditional methods alone. When used in conjunction with other survey methods, our text message surveys can be used in prepatory or subsequent ways for communicating with survey respondents.

Prepatory use

  • Screen respondents

  • Gather preliminary data

  • Schedule (primarily telephone)

Subsequent use

  • Follow-ups

  • Clarifications

  • Get essential data

Open a new and effective door of communication with your audiences. Achieve higher response rates and faster response times on your next study with Instant Census text message surveys!

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