Communications professor completes robocall research

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • October 17, 2013

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Spencer Kimball completed research on robocalls.
Spencer Kimball completed research on robocalls.

A robocall seems like an idea out of a 1970s sci-fi film—dated and easily dismissed—but according to research by Spencer Kimball, a scholar-in-residence at Emerson, these prerecorded phone messages for political campaigns have the public’s attention.

 Kimball found that 75 percent of people listen to more than 19 seconds of a prerecorded robocall, or auto-call message, which means they hear about 40 words. About 97 percent listen to a minimum of six seconds, according to his study.

 “People aren’t just hanging up when they get these calls; they’re actually listening,” said Kimball.

 Kimball said he led a team of three other researchers through six weeks of examining existing studies on auto-calls, followed by two weeks of analysis of data Kimball obtained without any cost from Stratics Network and 2 Cent Auto Calls, LLC, firms that provide auto-call services, he said. They sifted through 157 calling campaigns from 22 states, ranging from elections for state representatives to U.S. senators. All 389,588 phone calls that they studied were from the last week of the 2012 presidential election, said Kimball.

 “The data we looked at gave us the opposite results of all self-reported data given prior to this research,” he said.

 The idea for the project emerged from a conversation in Kimball’s Politics, Advocacy, and Public Opinion class, he said. A student piped up about an auto-call they received from Bill Clinton and other students chimed in. The majority reported that they usually hang up immediately on auto-calls, Kimball said. The class’s response matched former research in the field, he said.

 Previous research on auto-calls was based on self-reported data, which tends to be biased, Kimball said. He also said he was able to erase the bias in self-reported data by instead examining statistics from an electronic monitoring system integrated into all interactive voice recognition software.

The program records how many seconds a message is listened to after someone picks up the phone. In the data set, Kimball’s research team could see the time of day of the call, the day of the week the call was made, details about the political campaign that made the call, and how long the message was listened to. He said the reason the time is logged is so phone companies can bill auto-call services. Kimball said the accuracy in this data unveiled new results where previously there were problems.

 “This proved to be very valuable—the time being clocked,” said Kimball.

 Kimball appeared on Sirius XM’s Politics of the United States channel on Oct. 7 to discuss his findings, and this spring, his research will be published in the peer-reviewed journal American Behavioral Scientist, he said.

 Siobhan Robinson, a senior political communication major and the president of Emerson Polling Society, said she was part of the conversation in Kimball’s class and was surprised by the findings.

“While six seconds isn’t a long time, 97 percent is a big number, so it’s telling that a lot of people are willing to give the messages a chance,” she said. “It shows that the exposure is a lot higher than people thought it was.”

 Kimball said he is brainstorming ideas for a follow-up study to test the effectiveness of the calls.

 “Now we know that people are listening, but are these calls effective?” Kimball said. “We’re going to take it to the next level and listen to voice, gender, quality of the message, things of that nature to see what the best practices are when using this technology.”