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New Twist on Robocalling: You Do the (Mis)Dialing, Then Take Survey

The next time you dial a wrong number, you might be asked to answer a market research survey. Instead of somebody spamming you, you're spamming them.

Be careful the next time you dial a wrong number. You might be asked to answer a market research survey. Instead of somebody spamming you, it's now you spamming them. For the greater good of science and research.

It's the future of telecom, marketing and research. And that future is now.

Outbound dialing, what you're most familiar with, has been a headache for all Americans: Those spam phone calls — or "robocalls" — are so jarring, annoying and unnecessary. Think of the example when a stranger calls you in the middle of dinner to sell you a new subscription or have you fill out a poll.

Gradually that approach is going away. That's because of increased regulation, telemarketers' difficulty getting your number, and people not answering their phones anymore.

The new method is for a company to own a large set of phone numbers, and if you happen to call any of them, you'll be asked to answer a survey. Instead of you getting a call at some random time, they're just sitting back waiting for you to call them.

The telemarketing industry has seen big ripple effects from a $12 million settlement paid by research firm Gallup in July. The company settled a lawsuit saying it illegally used an autodialer to call people's cellphones.

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More broadly, the FCC has been making robocalling of consumers more difficult. One result is less accurate political polling: If they can only reach people on landline phones who actually pick up, they can't truly represent the general population. Research in health and infectious disease is also affected.

Consider the phone number on the back of a Capital One credit card. The correct phone number for international calls is area code 804. But a lot of people dial 800 out of habit instead — about 3,000 people each day in fact.

Same with the domestic phone number, ending in -7070. A lot of people call -7000 instead.

This is how a company like Reconnect Research finds you. They own both of these "wrong numbers."

When somebody dials those wrong numbers, Reconnect is waiting on the other end. The company can do a lot of things with that call, routing it to a variety of clients. Some clients might want to sell you something, while others may want you to fill out a survey.

"We own over 200,000 toll-free numbers," said Scott Richards, CEO of Reconnect. Among the numbers it owns are the two wrong numbers from that Capital One card. When you call one, you'll hear something like this:

“Would you say that, in general, your health is excellent, very good, good, fair or poor. If excellent, press 1. If very good, press 2. If good, press 3. If fair, press 4. If poor, press 5.”

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Richards trademarked the term MIDI to represent these calls: Misdial, Incomplete, Disconnect, Inbound. Notice they aren't just counting wrong numbers, but include a variety of other calls that can't go through from end to end. But Richard said the misdials are the highest quality calls, because those people were already trying to dial a 1-800 number and were prepared to hear a recorded message.

The company estimates there are 5 billion to 10 billion MIDI calls per month in the United States. Here's the crazy thing. A lot of people will stay on the phone and respond to the survey. In a recent case study, Reconnect showed that 14.5 percent of people stayed on the phone long enough to complete an entire three-minute survey.

Even with a small bank of numbers, you could receive 2.5 million misdials a month. With a completion rate that high, we're talking over 12,000 completed surveys per day. That is sizable when you consider a national political poll only needs about 1,000 adults to be statistically large enough.

The company has access to 100 million MIDI calls per month, so the research possibilities are endless.

The key reason that people stay on the phone and don't get annoyed is because they were the ones who initiated the call. They are already holding their phone, and had allocated time to talk anyway.

Based on a Big Crunch review of Reconnect's data, the company seems to have a strong case — their numbers are very much in line with the population overall. It seems that everybody is equally likely to dial a wrong number, or have a call get disconnected along the way.

The company's thesis is you'll get more accurate polling and customer research data from this group of MIDI calls, rather than relying only on the population of landline phone users.

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Think about it this way: The chances of being disconnected from a phone call is basically random, and a better way of getting a typical sample of Americans than almost anything else you can think of — certainly better than the current robocall approach.

"The success of this is much bigger than us," said Richards. "If an infectious disease breaks out, within hours we can find out if people are sick."

Where does that leave us? As this field starts to grow, you might start to hear more odd-sounding surveys and pitches that you didn't realize you called. And you might spend the three minutes to go through the process. And one day, when you see a piece of data in the news, whether it's a poll or research figure, it might have come from somebody like just you who never knew what they were about to do.

"Consumers hate robocalls," said Richards. "This gets rid of them."