Data is of utmost importance in facilitating sound decision-making and resource allocation, especially during a time of crisis such as COVID-19. But with social distancing measures, researchers are finding it hard to collect data in areas where internet and smartphones are inaccessible. Here lies the strength of mobile phone surveys through short message service (SMS) and interactive voice response (IVR) sent through feature phones (or what we call “dumb phones”).

Mobile phone surveys via SMS and IVR are some of the more effective data collection tools used by researchers working in hard-to-reach areas where face-to-face surveys are not possible. It’s also an efficient tool for large-scale projects such as International Organisation for Migration’s project in Ghana, in which they successfully completed 12,275 surveys in 5 days. Currently, IOM is also using engageSPARK to gather COVID-related information and feedback from 700,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Yet not all mobile phone surveys are created equal. Each SMS or call is an opportunity to gather quality data but each message also comes at a cost.  We’re sharing some tips on how you can get quality data from your SMS poll or  automated call survey. These tips are based on our experience running these types of surveys for almost 10+ years:

  1. Keep it simple. You only have 160 characters per SMS. Make sure that your questions are concise and easy-to-understand and that your instructions are clearly stated. (The exact character count depends, read more about SMS character limits here.)
  2. Send one question at a time. Don’t overwhelm your respondents with too many questions in one message. This will also help you once you start parsing your data because it’s easier to automate data extraction by setting conditions and updating contacts automatically. This is only possible if you’re focusing on one piece of data at a time.
  3. Choose the right medium. Unfortunately, in low- to middle-income countries (LMICs), not everyone has access to literacy training or education. IVR is a better option if not all of your respondents are able to read.
  4. Choose the right language. For both SMS and IVR, it is best to use your respondents’ native language.
  5. Mix SMS and IVR. There are many reasons why people don’t answer calls or texts. Maybe they are preoccupied and unable to type responses or they are simply on silent mode. Try mixing up these two modes. Send texts to those who don’t answer phone calls. Call people who are unable to type messages.
  6. You’re not limited to nominal data collection. You have an option to ask questions that require longer or more subjective answers. You can do this by asking them to speak after a beep. You can listen to these responses anytime.
  7. Send an SMS before calling. Give your respondent a heads up by sending them a text. Sometimes people don’t answer their phones when they don’t recognize a number. They are more likely to answer the call if they know you are calling.
  8. Offer incentives. Send mobile credits to encourage respondents to complete a survey. This can be in the form of airtime top-ups. (Did you know that you send airtime top-ups on the engageSPARK platform?)
  9. Set up automated call retries. Some people miss your call even if you’ve already sent them a notification. That’s okay. You can automatically set up call retries.
  10. If you have more than 20 questions, send them in batches. We don’t recommend surveys that are more than 20 questions long. If you have more questions, consider spacing them out by sending them the following day or week.

That’s it! We hope our tips helped you design your mobile phone survey. Let us know how it turns out.

We’ve also gathered other resources for you: