There is a certain irony when it comes to young adult Americans when it comes to market research: No generation in history has ever been as constantly plugged in to personal communication options, yet they are one of the hardest groups for survey researchers to reach. For decades, telephone surveys were a reliable way to reach almost any adult American. But the dramatic increase of people who have abandoned landline telephones and have gone wireless only – a trend driven largely by younger people, but now spreading to older age groups as well — has completely changed the way telephone survey research has to be approached.

In June 2012, the U. S. Centers for Disease Control reported that 34 percent of American homes were without a landline and the percentage is increasing at an accelerating pace. That fact alone would present enough of a challenge to telephone research, but the fact that wireless-only adoption differs by age, ethnicity, income, home ownership status and other demographic variables means that it’s much more difficult to obtain a truly representative sampling of many populations and geographic areas than it was even 10 years ago, and a purely landline approach is becoming less and less viable going forward. Approaches to reaching each one of those groups warrants their own discussion (which may be forthcoming in future posts), but here we are focusing strictly on some tips to reach younger people.

There’s no one best way to survey this group, but each of these approaches comes with its own set of strengths and limitations, and their usefulness will be highly dependent on the particular circumstances of each study. Some options include:

Telephone surveys using cell phone sample – This would seem to be the obvious solution, since people who are abandoning landlines are migrating to cell phones. This method works best when your sample source is a reliable, reasonably current database that includes cell phone numbers. There are, however, some limitations and cautions. For one thing, if the geographic scope of your research is narrow, cell numbers cannot be reliably tied to a specific geographic location in the way that landlines can. That makes it impossible to obtain cell phone samples for small geographic units and, unlike landlines, there’s no guarantee that the person even lives in the same area as their phone number. Also, there are restrictions in the U.S. on predictive dialers being used to target cell phones. In short, cell phone sample is a necessity but it comes with some inherent complications that are not true of landline sample.

Online panels – Panels can be a quick and efficient way to target certain groups with online surveys and can, in some cases, reach younger people more effectively than a telephone approach. But online panels also have certain limitations and concerns. Even with the largest panels, it is difficult to do a survey with very limited geographic parameters (for example a single city or county) with a panel due to limited numbers of panel members. Panels tend to work better in survey of regional or national scope. There are also many concerns about panel composition in terms of their representativeness, the effects of their repeated participation in research, and how engaged they are when completing surveys.

Online surveys – Online surveys administered through email invitations work well in certain circumstances – particularly when you can be reasonably sure the recipient will receive the email and actually checks the email account. RMS has seen high survey completion rates with online surveys targeted to college students when the invites were sent to their student email accounts and the lists were supplied by the institutions. Unfortunately, conditions are rarely that optimal. Purchased email sample tends to yield very low response rates as it often contains inactive addresses and addresses for accounts that rarely get checked. There is also a chance that an unsolicited email invite from an unknown source will get caught in the recipient’s spam filter, and if it does get through it will often be deleted unread unless the subject line is enticing. Generally speaking, online surveys with email invitations get strong responses in situations where the recipient is aware of the sender and is expecting to receive the email, and the email list comes from an entity that maintains regular contact with the respondent pool. The less any or all of those conditions exist, the worse the response rate will tend to be.

Mobile surveys – Younger people are heavy users of smart phones and similar devices, so surveys designed specifically to be experienced on those devices are a natural fit. However, this approach comes with the same limitations of cell phone sample described above. Furthermore, surveys need to be specifically formatted to appear properly on a smart phone screen and they also need to be much briefer and tightly focused than traditional phone surveys. It’s important to remember that takers of mobile surveys will be viewing them on a small screen, typing with their thumbs and most likely be multi-tasking while completing the survey.

So, there is really no one best way to reach younger people for survey research. The optimal approach depends on the nature of the specific topic being researched, the sample that is available, the geographic scope of the study and a variety of other factors. In some cases, it is necessary to adopt a mixed mode approach that incorporates two or more of the methods discussed, and in fact, mixed mode surveys are becoming more popular as different segments become more varied in their communications choices. Another trend that has been becoming more prevalent is the tendency of some researchers to use convenience samples (frequently drawn from social media) rather than traditional scientific samples when surveying young adults or other elusive population segments. Convenience samples are not advisable for quantitative research, but there is a school of thought that some data is better than none, as long as one understands the limitations of samples that are not necessarily representative of the population as a whole.

If you are considering a survey targeted to a younger audience (or any audience, really), it is worth your while to consult with an experienced market research professional. If you want to learn more about RMS’s expertise with administering research to hard-to-reach segments of the population, please contact Sandy Baker at or by calling (315) 635-9802.