Recent research suggests that text messages may be the most efficient direct means of gathering information on the opinions, behaviour and needs of low-income inner-city minority populations.

SMS the Best Way to Conduct Surveys?

A pilot study, in the form of a survey carried out among a low-income African-American community* in Detroit in the United States achieved a high response rate using text messages as the survey medium. The research team – consisting of University of Michigan researchers, the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center and representatives of the Friends of Parkside (the community surveyed) – reached the conclusion that the people being polled preferred this communication channel over traditional postal questionnaires and phone calls. The content of the survey focused on health and primary medical care topics, sensitive issues for the people concerned and therefore potentially difficult for researchers to get a handle on. The fact that the text messaging approach was based on mobile phones – whose ownership rate among the target population stands at 93% – goes a long way towards explaining the success of the project, underlines Washington DC-based think-tank the Pew Research Center.

Mobile is the favourite channel among US low-income groups

The survey showed very positive results for the use of mobile SMS in interacting with the target group. Those polled stated that it was quicker to answer a survey this way than via other means, and that they could certainly manage to answer two texted survey questions per day. Running a survey this way also tends to produce real-time feedback: most respondents answered the questions very soon after receiving them. The researchers went further, seeking to find out what was the most appropriate time to send the questions. However, the very small sample makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions as to whether people would respond more easily during normal business hours than in the evening or at weekends. In fact the survey showed a difference of 0.4% in favour of evenings and weekends.

Text questions received reliable replies in real time

All in all, however, the high response rate and the quality of the information given definitely seem to favour mobile SMS. The average response rate per participant to the texted questions was 72%. Apart from this being an extremely high response rate compared to usual survey response rates, the actual answers provided some very useful information, showing inter alia the need to educate the community better on health issues. Among the questions asked were how the respondent would react if s/he broke a leg, or if a new job demanded influenza vaccination. However, one of the text messages described the symptoms of a stroke. Respondents did not spot that the situation was serious, replying that if they started to experience these symptoms they simply would wait for them to go away.


*Survey among twenty people with annual earnings of $16,000 - $26,000 (€12,000 - €20,000)

By Lucie Frontière