Mail surveys were already losing some of their share of the methodology mix back in 1989. In his June 1989 article, “Mail surveys still a viable research technique”, publisher Tom Quirk acknowledges “although there has been less emphasis placed on the use of mail surveys, they nevertheless are an important part of the research mix and are often the most effective and efficient method of obtaining data.”
Quirk brought up an interesting point; which is the controversy over the validity of mail survey results that isn’t often associated with other methodologies. One major criticism of mail surveys is the non-response factor. It is here that Quirk emphasizes the importance of knowing as much as possible about the list which is being used, and questionnaire development.
According to the GRIT (GreenBook Research Industry Trends) Report, using data collected Q4 2013, the use of mail surveys among over 2,000 researchers sampled has dropped to 11%, down from 16% the previous year. Amongst those in the sample who are not using this older technique, the reasons given are: slow, expensive, and not fashionable. When asked which techniques respondents would choose to specialize in, or which techniques should be offered by their ‘perfect research company’, the mail technique came in at the bottom of a list of twenty-four methods, with only 2% of research suppliers and 3% of clients mentioning it.
Mail surveys are expensive; postage rates were increased this year to 49-cents for a first-class stamp. When you include a self-addressed stamped envelope and the cost of paper and printing, it adds up quickly. However, I still believe there is a place for mail surveys in the methodology mix. Last month, I oversaw projects using online surveys, telephone and mail. The mail methodology had the highest response rate, over 25%. It is important to know your target market, and this one was older, lower income and a rural population. The sample used the envelopes to let us know just how important the survey was to them. Can any other data collection tool allow respondents the opportunity to alert the researcher before they even start to look at the data? I can’t think of one.
When the results of a survey are meant to reflect a population as a whole, the representativeness of the sample is a critical component. One can purchase a list of street addresses for the population being surveyed, which ensures everyone in the population has an equally likely chance to be chosen to complete the survey. On the other hand, if only a portion of the population has email addresses, the sample would not be representative of the total population. The benefit of mailing to a physical address over an electronic address is that when the street address changes, the post office provides a forwarding for a period of time. When the electronic address changes, all you receive is a bounceback.
When weighing the pros and cons of the more common quantitative data collection methods, the mail methodology is a viable option in many ways and should not be dismissed – even if it is not deemed fashionable.