Background: Epidemiological research often requires collection of data from a representative sample of the community or recruitment of specific groups through broad community approaches. The population coverage of traditional survey methods such as mail-outs to residential addresses, and telephone contact via public directories or random-digit-dialing is declining and survey response rates are falling. There is a need to explore new sampling frames and consider multiple response modes including those offered by changes in telecommunications and internet technology.
Methods: We evaluated response rates and cost-effectiveness for three modes of survey administration (postal invitation/postal survey, postal invitation/internet survey and postal invitation/telephone survey) and two styles of contact approach (personalised and generic) in a community survey of greywater use. Potential respondents were contacted only once, with no follow up of non-responders.
Results: The telephone survey produced the highest adjusted response rate (30.2%), followed by the personalised postal survey (10.5%), generic postal survey (7.5%) and then the internet survey (4.7% for the personalised approach and 2.2% for the generic approach). There were some differences in household characteristics and greywater use rates between respondents to different survey modes, and between respondents to personalised and generic approaches. These may be attributable to the differing levels of motivations needed for a response, and varying levels of interest in the survey topic among greywater users and non-users. The generic postal survey had the lowest costs per valid survey received (Australian $22.93), followed by the personalised postal survey ($24.75).
Conclusions: Our findings suggest that postal surveys currently remain the most economic option for population-based studies, with similar costs for personalised and generic approaches. Internet surveys may be effective for specialised groups where email lists are available for initial contact, but barriers other than household internet access still exist for community-based surveys. Given the increasing recruitment challenges facing community-based studies, there is an imperative to gather contemporary comparative data on different survey modes and recruitment approaches in order to determine their strengths, limitations and costs. Researchers also need to document and report on the potential biases in the target and respondent populations and how this may affect the data collected.