Editor’s note: Barbara Schuldt is associate professor, computer information systems, in the Business Administration Department of Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minn. Jeffrey Totten is assistant professor, business administration, in the Bemidji State Business Administration Department.

Over the past 70 to 80 years, the research industry has seen a lot of changes in the data collection methods it uses. Basic data collection methods (mail survey, telephone interviewing, mall intercepts, and personal interviewing) were developed, used, evaluated, and improved upon. With the advent of computer and communications technologies, researchers developed computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI), computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI), disk-by-mail surveys, and fax surveys as new data collection methods. With the growth of the Internet and computer networks, we’re seeing a steady stream of research into the use of e-mail as a data collection tool, along with Web-based surveys.

As with fax survey research, most of the research on electronic mail as a data collection method has been done in comparison with traditional mail surveys. Though Kiesler and Sproull did initial work in 1986, most of the research has been conducted in this decade. Early research in this decade focused on response rates, speed of data collection, and advantages and disadvantages of using e-mail as a data collection method (see Parker, 1992; Walsh, et al., 1992; Schuldt and Totten, 1994; Thach, 1995; Oppermann, 1995; and Schuldt and Totten, 1997).

Research in the last half of this decade has expanded the exploration to include the following: response quality (usually measured by item nonresponse), survey costs, personalization of e-mail, prenotification, and reminders (see Tse, et al., 1995; Mehta and Sivadas, 1995; Bachmann, Elfrink and Vazzana, 1996; Flaherty, Honeycutt and Powers, 1998; Tse, 1998; Weible and Wallace, 1999). E-mail has also been considered in conducting quantitative research studies on the Internet, along with Web survey systems, Web CGI programs, and converted CATI and disk-by-mail methods (see Eaton, 1997; Watt; 1997; Weissbach, 1997; Dodd, 1998; and Sudman and Blair, 1999). A number of companies now offer both e-mail and Web-based survey development services.

E-mail offers researchers a number of attractive advantages, the two biggest being very rapid surveying and low cost. What is questionable at this time is the response quantity (i.e., response rate) and response quality of the e-mail method. Multiple contacts of respondents appear to increase e-mail response rates, as they do for other methods. Given the lack of anonymity of e-mail, researchers also need to stress confidentiality more with this method. Monetary incentives are a problem with e-mail, so other forms of incentives need to be developed and tested.

Standardization efforts

Thus far, out of convenience to some degree, and the likelihood of finding universal e-mail access and addresses in this type of industry, college and university faculty and deans have been identified as the populations for many of these studies. What happens when we look at other industries? Individual companies often have their own networks of e-mail and other computer technology/software. How likely are researchers to find companies in the same industry using e-mail technology that would facilitate surveys via e-mail?

What about consumers? More and more people are getting on-line to explore the Internet. It is estimated that approximately 25 percent of the world’s population is currently using e-mail. How many are likely to be using one particular e-mail system? How can the researcher get access to this system?

Don Dillman, an expert on the mail survey method, has turned his attention to this new data collection method. Dillman and his co-author, David Schaefer, set out to establish a methodological procedure for using the e-mail method, as well as experimenting with a multiple method strategy (see Schaefer and Dillman, 1998). Paper and e-mail modes were used in different combinations and contacts (prenotification, survey, reminder, follow-up survey). The mixed-mode strategy is recommended for e-mail surveys, where the use of paper surveys to reach those sample units who are not yet reached by e-mail remedies the "coverage error" (as Schaefer and Dillman call it) encountered by researchers who target populations other than university professors. Interestingly, Schaefer and Dillman found that e-mail works better than mail as a prenotification device for subsequent surveys. Also, they confirmed what previous researchers had tentatively concluded: The survey time frame should be speeded up for e-mail studies. In other words, prenotification, survey, reminder and follow-up survey can be done within 10 to 14 days, whereas traditionally such a time frame would run three to five weeks.

What’s next?

More research, of course! Seriously, though, we have much yet to learn about using e-mail as a data collection method. We need to test response quality and quantity on more diverse populations and on populations with less e-mail access. We need to test incentives on e-mail respondents. Is there some way to transmit the equivalent of a monetary incentive via e-mail? Perhaps we need to work with our information systems colleagues to standardize electronic mail systems, so constructing e-mail surveys will be easier, and responding to those surveys will, more importantly, be easier. We also need to test longer questionnaires, especially ones that include complicated skip patterns. What can be done to alleviate the anonymity problem and provide some measure of privacy for respondents? How can we reduce the self-selection bias and make the results more generalizable to the populations being studied? Our work on this new method of data collection, and its relative, Internet surveys, is far from being finished. Also, on the horizon is interactive television. Will interactive television be another medium for researchers to use for data collection?


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