Recently, a program manager reached out to us about surveying members of a rather remote community. Usually, such a survey would mean she or one of her colleagues would ride a boat for several hours—one way—followed by the giving of gifts and finally the survey. This time she wanted to try something different.

In-person surveys, as I just described them, are a tried-and-true way of getting vital data about how a social intervention is working out. This time though, she wanted to explore mobile surveys. It wasn’t just about the time, hassle, and money. It was about safety in times of COVID.

Let’s have a fresh look at surveying in times of COVID-19, and how mobile surveys can help mitigate or eliminate the risk of spreading infectious diseases.

Why are in-person surveys a problem?

Time-intensive, costly, not scalable: in-person surveys are often not the best tool available. This is particularly true during a pandemic.

First, there is the risk to your staff, the ones conducting the survey. One by one, they get in contact with a lot of people from the same community.

Going through a questionnaire involves spending a bunch of time with someone outside of your normal circle, and usually pretty close, too. Masks and face shields help mitigate this risk, but the risk is there.

And then, there is the same issue reversed: a lot of people get in contact with your staff! Unknowingly, they may spread disease to that community.

This is a particularly high risk when running a social program with a remote community. Their distance from the rest of the world is a natural protection against a pandemic disease. Breaching this barrier is not something you want to do unnecessarily.

That was what the program manager decided as well. But, she still needed the data, so what are her options?

Safe surveys with mobile phones

Mobile phones offer a couple of ways to run surveys safely and with as many people as you like. Which method you choose depends on your audience and needs. Here are three common ways.

SMS Surveys

SMS are the bread & butter of mobile surveys, being available almost anywhere. The SMS to the participants contain the questions, and their replies contain the answers—a simple back and forth.

There are numerous advantages of SMS Surveys. For example, participants can read and re-read questions as often as they like. They can think about it and reply in their own time.

This also reveals one of the problems of SMS Surveys: completion rate. Because there is no sense of urgency, the cost per completed survey needs to be managed carefully.

The other big challenge with SMS Surveys is to make replying possible and easy—you need a two-way phone number for that.

Read more about how to setup a SMS Survey, and why managing attention matters.

Voice IVR Surveys

Voice IVR offers a compelling alternative to SMS for conducting surveys. Participants are either enrolled by you or they can self-enroll using missed calls or SMS. After they’re enrolled they get a call back with the actual survey.

Questions are asked with voice and answers are either given by recording the participant’s voice, or in case of multiple-choice answers using keypresses on the keypad.

One of the beautiful advantages of Voice IVR over SMS is inclusiveness: with voice, you can reach almost anyone with a phone, no matter if they are able to read or if their alphabet is supported on their devices. Another one is the “human voice factor”—it’s just so much more powerful than a piece of text when connecting to others.

Another is that you can set it up so that participants don’t pay a thing. That is not always true with SMS Surveys.

This may be counterintuitive: the cost per completed survey is frequently better with Voice IVR than with SMS, despite voice minutes usually being more expensive than SMS. Why is that? Because once people are on the phone, you’ve got their attention, and they are much more likely to stick to it and finish the survey.

Read more about how to run a successful NGO Survey with Voice IVR in our guide.

WhatsApp Surveys

WhatsApp Surveys are a recent addition to our surveying capabilities—and they open all kinds of new opportunities to reach your audience.

Surveys with messaging apps offer two things that SMS & Voice IVR have a hard time with or don’t offer at all: Questions with images and emojis. Audio clips allow you to add a human voice, literally. And messaging via apps is generally very cheap when compared to SMS or Voice IVR.

So, are there any downsides with using messaging apps? Unfortunately, yes: the need for Internet access and a lack of urgency are some of them. Read more about the pros and cons of running surveys with Whatsapp and Telegram.


All in all, mobile phones offer various methods to conduct surveys in a safe and socially-distant manner.

  • Depending on your needs, you may choose one of SMS, Voice IVR, or a messaging apps such as Whatsapp, or Telegram. You may even combine those to reach different audiences.
  • SMS is available far and wide but struggles with completion rates and needs a 2-way SMS number. (We are happy to help you with this.)
  • Voice IVR is great when completion rate and the “human voice factor” matters.
  • WhatsApp Surveys are a must if you need Images and Emojis. You should definitely consider conducting your survey via messaging apps—if they are available to your audience.

Reach out to us if you would like to see a demo, or if you are not sure which option is best for you. We’ve guided NGOs big and small towards successful surveys.

If you’re looking at COVID-19 related programs, you may be interested in this blog post about how we help organizations fight COVID-19.

Safe Surveys: Beyond Diseases

The topic of safety goes further than just protecting your staff and beneficiaries from infectious diseases. For example, there is a good deal to consider when doing outreach programs involving stigmatized or taboo topics such as HIV. But that is for another article.