Text can’t replace the human voice. Not really. That’s one of the lessons a lot of people have had to learn the past six months while working from home. This is true for office work—but it’s also true for NGO surveys and any kind of social intervention.

Two ways to run a Voice Survey at scale

The established way to run Voice Surveys at scale has been IVR: you, or a professional speaker, record the questions in advance, which are then played on a call. Participants then reply using keypresses or spoken responses.

This tried-and-true way has been used by many organizations, such as John Hopkins University and the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), but also businesses such as Unilever in Indonesia. Have a look at our comprehensive guide for NGO Surveys using IVR.

But here is the exciting news: Chat apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram open up a second way to run voice surveys! As they become more and more available in developing countries, you can now use voice on chat apps as well—to speak to even more people in innovative ways.

But why should you prefer voice over text in the first place? Let’s look at the various situations where voice is your advantage.

Voice is clearer

Your voice tells it’s own story. You can tell someone “I am okay” over the phone, and they’ll know whether you’re brimming with happiness or are drowning in a pit of despair. The words don’t do that: it’s how you say it.

This is super important in educational programs that use storytelling to share information and skills. For example, a financial literacy program used a soap opera to tell a story of a couple making financial decisions. Hearing this couple argue made the nuances much clearer.

In surveys, too, emotions aren’t a nice-to-have, either. It’s really about making your intentions clear. The same words can sound condescending or compassionate, and that can make the difference between getting an answer or not.

Voice is more fun (and it matters)

Part of what made the financial literacy intervention above a success was the sense of fun it could convey. Ben and Joy bickered and argued as any couple does and that made it not just educational or informative to listen, but also fun.

With voice, we can keep someone’s attention in ways that text cannot, and it matters

Voice speaks your language (literally)

Here is a big one that’s often forgotten: With voice, you can speak the language of your audience, and quite literally, too. Having a native speaker give advice or ask questions is a powerful way to give beneficiaries a feeling of “hey, that’s one of us”. Because it is.

But, you can go further than just picking the right language. The choice of the speaker matters even more.

When spreading awareness about HIV among women, unsurprisingly other women have an easier time raising the topic than male social workers would. Likewise, a male voice can help reassure a male audience.

Voice is inclusive

That you can speak your audience’s language matters double when your audience can’t read. Or when there is no obvious alphabet for the language in question. Or if phone’s do not consistently support that alphabet.

Voice calls in contrast allow you to reach any community with whatever spoken language they use.

The human voice is the most inclusive way to reach out to people..

Give your beneficiaries a voice

So far, we’ve talked about voice in terms of you conveying information, you asking questions. But the beauty of voice is that it goes both ways. (Though there are some concessions to be made.)

Your beneficiaries, too, can speak, and you literally can hear their voice.

The most important factor is again inclusiveness: people who cannot write suddenly find themselves represented in surveys.

Spoken response or keypresses?

Voice calls allow for two ways to reply. One is speaking, the other is pressing keys on the keypad of the phone.

The latter method is useful when asking multiple-choice questions: since it’s clear what choice they made, the engageSPARK platform can assemble reports with graphs and statistics about how many people chose which option. Subsequent questions can take this into account. Neither is possible with spoken responses.

So, if you have a literate audience, when would you opt for spoken responses?

First, when you have an open-ended question. “How old are you?” you can answer on your keypad. But if the question becomes “what is your name?” the keypad very quickly becomes useless. In this case, a spoken response is the only option.

Second, when you want to hear the mood of the audience. Are they angry? Annoyed? Happy? Their voice can tell.

Third, when keypresses aren’t as reliable as they should be. Because in some countries they just are not. (If you’re not sure, reach out and let’s discuss what you want to do.) So, when you can’t rely on keypresses, then spoken response may be the way to go. Or it’s time to re-evaluate other options, such as WhatsApp Surveys or SMS Surveys.


The human voice can clarify and make things fun. It can reach people who can’t read and give a sense of “it’s one of us”. And it allows people to respond that couldn’t with text.

Voice IVR and WhatsApp offer voice as a method that can help make your program a success. If you’re not sure which way to go, which method to choose, reach out to us. We’ve advised NGO’s big and small on how to run successful interventions, and the engageSPARK platform is just the tool to make it happen.