Cellphone polling makes me ramble

The headline contains a warning. Heeding it won’t hurt my feelings.

I used to be a journalist, then an actuary. Now I suppose I’m a journalist-actuary mongrel.

In between I was  briefly a research analyst, so I’ve always been interested in public-opinion polling. Which leads me to this Wall Street Journal Numbers Guy post on the challenges of cell phones in polling.

The problem: Pollsters prefer to call landlines, but more and more people – especially those under 30 – only have cells. WSJ reporter Carl Bialik sums up both the challenges of polling cellsters and the consequences of failing to do so:

. . . Legal restrictions require pollsters to dial cellphones by hand, which contributes to higher costs, as do the difficulty of completing the interview, either because the cellphone user who answers is too young, too distracted or doesn’t live in the place indicated by his phone number.

But the only alternative worse than dealing with those challenges is opting out of doing so, say many pollsters, because there are major differences between Americans who do and don’t have cellphones.

The Pew Research Center has found that without dialing cellphones, it wouldn’t even be able to report on young people’s views with any reliability, because it would struggle to get the minimum 100 respondents – in a group of landline interviews, just 6% of respondents are under 30, compared to 22% of the U.S. adult population.

Personal aside: The landline divide is SOOOOOOO generational. Visiting my 25-year-old niece at her rental, I noticed the a phone receptacle cluttering a wall where it will probably never, ever be used. It’s ugly, ungainly and awkward. I imagine my niece laughs at the fogeys who needed such an albatross or imagines a wall hanging that can cover it.

Here at Family Central, we’re slowly being won over. The landline’s junk call/real call ratio is unacceptably high. We’re starting to wonder why we pay Verizon for the privilege of having our dinner interrupted.

Before you ask, yeah, we’re on the Do Not Call registry. But charities are exempt. If you’ve had a single charitable impulse in your life, that’s enough to bring out the nattering, but well-intentioned, hordes. Politicians exempted themselves, too, with predictable consequences.

Letting go, though, is one of those debates homo economicus loses to our weepier homo softicus. I had the same problem cutting up my first credit card (Amex) and dropping State Farm auto after three decades. There’s a one-sided attachment that really shouldn’t exist, but does.

Really, landline owning is another case of adverse selection. It’s cheaper for robocallers to hit landlines. The more they hit landlines, the more people opt to cells. Robocallers hit the remaining landline people even harder. Some more leave, etc., etc. lather rinse repeat.

To get meta here (as if I already haven’t), this is really about the struggle for privacy. Scores of marketers want a sliver of your private moments. Americans have been selling little bits of privacy for three decades, since the first grocery store issued the first customer loyalty card. Now you can research gull wasps, watch kitty videos, gossip with friends and read the New York Times – all for free, except for letting a little cookie bug see everything else you’ve been up to.

We’ve oversold. There’s not enough private time to sliver off for every marketer. We throw up new walls. Cell phones have been  effective barriers, at least for warding off telemarketers.

But that’s changing, as noted in the WSJ post (way up at the top of this rant – remember?). Thee-fourths of pollsters regularly canvass cell phones, including Marist and Gallup. At Gallup, 40% of interviews are on cells.

While many pollsters now deem it necessary to dial cellphones, some also see much broader problems with the state of polling. Americans reached on any sort of phone are less likely each year to participate. So while cellphones are increasingly considered a must, pollsters also are experimenting with other methods, including securing responses in writing, online or by postal mail.

Interesting that the reporter has to specify that the mail is postal, as opposed to electronic. Also that the word postal to me has less to do with mail delivery than with over-the-top violence.

I’d go on, but it’s time for breakfast.

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