What Marketers Can Learn From the New Direction of Polling

Five Tips for Brands from Political Pollsters

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Political pollsters around the world have been messing up. So should marketers listen to what they have to say?

The short answer is: Yes.

Today, pollsters are taking a fresh look at legacy methods, focusing on making cumbersome research processes more agile and more relevant. There's now a sharp focus on getting data in the hands of decision-makers when they need it to make decisions, not simply to do periodic check-ins on the same boring measures.

Asking real questions, going deep, providing nuance, and telling compelling narratives are hallmarks of good polling. Here are some tips to help marketers make the most of polling methods in today's fast-changing marketplace.

1. Avoid the one-poll wonder.

Too many marketers take a "one-and-done" approach to market research: testing a product or a concept one time, and considering the issue settled. But a single poll at a particular time is almost never sufficient. After all, political campaigns poll regularly before introducing something new or changing their messaging in order to ensure that they're continuing to inspire voters.

Before the May elections in the U.K., the economy was the clear No. 1 issue on the minds of British voters -- now it's immigration. Want to understand a marketplace? You'd better ask regularly.

Tip: Surveys should be taken regularly over long intervals to gauge changes in consumer tastes and perceptions. Brands, like voters and candidates, aren't static and should adjust to customer demands in real time.

2. Be innovative.

Few things spark quicker innovation than failure, and that's been true in polling since well before Hillary Clinton pulled out an unexpected win over Barack Obama in the 2008 New Hampshire primary. It was even true before the shocking events of 1948, when newspapers printed "Dewey Defeats Truman" headlines based on poll predictions.

When pollsters fail, they adjust; marketers should take note. When polls failed in 2008, pollsters started broadly using cellphones in their polls. Now, in the wake of fresh problems, pollsters are doing even more online, with tremendous emphasis on the mobile survey-taking experience.

Tip: Ditch your 60-question annual brand tracker in favor of more frequent, mobile-oriented experiences for survey takers. Your legacy approach will someday fail to catch a trend or just spot being reliable because no one wants to take your survey.

3. Seek the truth.

Forget about the "CYA" poll -- real decisions are on the line, so make the right ones. Why waste your time and money designing surveys to simply get the data you were looking for all along? Survey data are meant to guide campaigns -- not please your C-suite or board members. Take it from pollsters, who use their numbers as the guideposts for campaign messaging, and importantly, campaign spending. Pollsters can't afford to end up with results that just affirm a candidate's point of view. Instead, pollsters have to uncover areas of opportunity in their polling that campaigns can exploit to gain supporters and motivate people to give money and vote.

Tip: Take an honest crack at the truth when it comes to consumer perceptions and you'll uncover survey results that can drive real market share and leadership, and also impress your board members.

4. Time is not the greatest enemy.

Often, executives decide to conduct a poll too late; they've reached an impasse and decide to settle the matter with data. They launch an online poll, and voila -- an answer, often in just a few hours. But just how representative are the respondents who answer your survey between noon and 2 p.m. on a Friday?

Let's look at Iowa during presidential campaign season, for example. Every candidate, campaign, and media outlet knows better than to do a one-night survey on Wednesday evenings. Wednesday evenings are prime time for church gatherings in the Hawkeye state. A poll that night -- no matter how many people responded -- would likely miss a whole swath of the people most apt to vote in the Republican presidential caucus.

Tip: When surveying your audience, diversify your sample across days and times -- don't be left with an unrepresentative bunch.

5. Don't skimp on sample.

For political pollsters, the top-line number on a survey question is in many ways just the tip of the iceberg. Sure, the president's approval rating matters, but the real story -- the one that should drive strategy -- is more granular. Nuance is key. How do women compare to men? How do white evangelical voters in the Midwest respond to an issue or a candidate's attributes compared to those in the South?

Pollsters are experienced in viewing their results through multiple lenses, and marketers can gain a lot more traction from their surveys if they do the same. But to do any of this, you need a sufficient sample to make reliable comparisons.

Tip: Make sure you gather enough data to see what really resonates across different demographic segments.

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