Political Polling Validity Becomes Shaky

Political polling is getting less reliable in predicting actual election outcomes. Reasons include the growing use of cell phones, reluctance to participate in telephone surveys and the rising cost of representative research samples.

Political polling is getting less reliable in predicting actual election outcomes. Reasons include the growing use of cell phones, reluctance to participate in telephone surveys and the rising cost of representative research samples.

Political polling doesn't seem to be as spot on as it used to be. Greater use of cell phones, wariness to participate in surveys and unrepresentative samples are among the reasons that political polls and election results turn out differently.

Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers political science professor and past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, writes in the New York Times that "polls and pollsters are going to be less reliable," so voters and the news media should beware.

"We are less rue how to conduct good survey research now than we were four years ago, and much less than eight years ago," says Zukin. "Don't look for too much help in what the polling aggregation sites may be offering. They, too, have been falling further off the track of late. It's not their fault. They are only as good as the raw material they have to work with."

Polling failures have been exposed in the most undetected 2014 mid-term election sweep in which Republicans captures both houses of Congress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's solid victory in Israel and British Prime Minister David Cameron's relatively easy re-election win.

Cell phones are everywhere and increasingly have replaced landline telephones. Pollsters can find cell phone numbers, but federal law prevents calling them with automatic dialers. According to Zukin, "To complete a 1,000-person survey, it's not unusual to have to dial more than 20,000 random numbers, most of which do not go to working telephone numbers." That adds budget-busting cost to telephone surveys, which in turn lead to "compromises in sampling and interviewing."

Response rates to surveys have declined precipitously. In the 1970s, Zukin says an 80 percent response rate was considered acceptable. Now response rates have dipped below 10 percent. It is hard to draw a representative sample when large chunks of the population refuse to participate. Some cohorts, such as lower income household members, are more unlikely to participate than others, which can skew results. And it takes more calls to achieve a representative sample, which encourages corner-skipping.

Internet polling has emerged as a strong alternative. It is cheaper than telephone surveys and, at least or the moment, people seem more willing to participate, in part because they have more choice in when and how to respond.

But Internet use has built-in biases, too, Zukin notes. While 97 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 use the Internet, 40 percent of adults older than age 65 don't. "Almost all online election polling is done with non probability samples," Zukin says, which makes it impossible to calculate a margin of error. 

The most vexing polling problem is not a new one – determining who will actually vote. Public opinion polling is one thing; trying to predict the outcome of an actual election is another. Pollsters recognize that respondents will overstate their likelihood of actually voting, but have limited ability to identify who will and who won't cast ballots.

Non voting can occur for a mix of reasons – bad weather, lack of interest or political protest. Some registered voters simply forget to vote, especially in non-presidential elections. Less motivated voters vote in top-line races and leave the rest of their ballots blank, making it hard to predict the "turnout" for so-called down-ballot candidates and ballot measures.

Scott Keeter, who directs survey research at Pew Research, says the combination of these factors is shifting political polling "from science to art."

Political polls will continue to be magnets for media coverage, but readers should be aware that the results may not have as much validity as polling in the past.

Making Customer Engagement Simple

Fears about customer engagement are due primarily to not knowing how or where to start. 

Fears about customer engagement are due primarily to not knowing how or where to start. 

“Customer” has become a key word in marketing plans. Efforts to improve customer service, analyze customer touch points, understand the customer experience and develop better customer relationship management are widespread.

Why then do conversations about customer engagement make marketing managers turn into deer in the headlights: big eyed, frozen in fear and totally confused? 

Fears about customer engagement are due primarily to not knowing how or where to start. Here are some simple steps to get the customer engagement ball rolling. They also can serve as the foundation for a long-term, effective program with measureable results.  

  1. Get to know your customer by asking them to participate in an online survey. Use the Net Promoter Score (NPS) question that will measure how likely customers are to recommend your product or service and  identify Promoters (your biggest fans who will recommend products and services to others) and Detractors (dissatisfied customers who will complain to others). Ask open-ended questions to determine why some customers would recommend and others would not.  
  2. Send thank you emails to survey participants. Share some information about what you learned and what you plan to do with the results. Customers now know you are listening and plan to take action based on feedback. 
  3. Send another email to customers who did not participate in the survey. Share some information about what you learned from the survey. Include a hyperlink to the survey so these customers can share their opinions, too.  
  4. Periodically let your customers know about the changes you have made in products, services and operations. Remind them changes are based on customer input and ideas. 
  5. Invite customers who participated in online surveys to participate in web-based or live customer advisory panels. Use the panels to help make decisions about products, services and operational changes. Let other customers know about the advisory panels. 
  6. Use comments from online surveys to develop content for newsletters and social media postings. The topics will be relevant to others as well and will increase readership.  
  7. Get customer service to call Detractors. Dissatisfied customers will explain specific problems with products or poor customer service experiences. Offer to make amends. You will be surprised how many will temper criticism. Not only that – they will tell others that your company responded to their complaints. 

Every six to 12 months, conduct another online survey among a different group of customers and repeat the entire process. 

Customer engagement programs don’t need to be complicated. By keeping the process simple, companies can engage a wide range of customers, get actionable information, utilize communication tools already in place and develop stronger relationships.

Where You Communicate Matters in Local Affairs

A communications audit can steer a local government or a school district to the right communications channels where people will look for their messages.

A communications audit can steer a local government or a school district to the right communications channels where people will look for their messages.

How people get information about local politics continues to evolve. Surveys conducted by CFM for a variety of local governments found a larger percentage of the community relies on electronic communications, such as e-newsletters, websites and social media.

Community newspapers have a strong readership following. However, metropolitan daily newspapers are losing readership and people who rely on TV or radio news hovers in the low single digits. 

But this broad-brush analysis doesn’t provide the in-depth analysis that most communicators need to reach key demographic groups. 

One school district wanted to save $80,000 a year by dropping its printed newsletter mailed to the community. However, a community survey found doing so would have been a disaster. More than half of residents age 65 and older used that mailer as their primary source of information about local education activities.

On the other hand, digital communication was the most popular source of information among residents under age 65, especially parents of students. 

Use of traditional news media versus emerging communications tools differs nationally as well. A recent Pew Research analysis of research among Internet users found that Facebook was a primary news source among Millennials (ages 18 to 33 years) while TV news is the top source for news among Baby Boomers (ages 50 to 68 years). Gen Xers (ages 34 to 49 years) is the transition group, equally as likely to get news from Facebook as they are TV news. 

Finding the right mix of communication tools for effective communication can be a challenge. To maximize communication efforts consider: 

  • Surveying the community. Ask people to identify the most important sources of information to them personally. Use cross tabulation tables to segment the market. 
  • Conduct a communications audit. Review all ways your organization tries to inform a community by talking to key stakeholders in target audiences. 
  • Set up measurement tools. Use Google Analytics to assess web traffic. Track open and click through rates for e-newsletters. Track news articles for tone. 

Don’t forget to share findings and changes with key managers. Effective communication plans won’t change without the support of those who manage the purse strings.  

John Nash, Game Theory and Marketing Success

Mathematician John Nash, who died in a crash over the weekend, made a seminal contribution to game theory that is applied virtually everyday in multiple academic fields, sports and marketing.

Mathematician John Nash, who died in a crash over the weekend, made a seminal contribution to game theory that is applied virtually everyday in multiple academic fields, sports and marketing.

Math and mathematicians rarely become central figures in Hollywood films, let alone with an Oscar. John Nash, the Nobel prize winner for his insight on game theory and the victim in a fatal taxicab crash over the weekend, was the exception.

Fivethirtyeight.com carried a eulogistic blog titled "Why John Nash Matters" that suggests the "Nash Equilibrium" informs many academic disciplines, how soccer goalies defend against penalty shots and everyday strategies in business and love.

Nash's key discernment is that people don't pursue strategies in a vacuum; they undertake strategies based on what they perceive as their opponent's strategies. 

Rendered in sports terms, defensive coordinators don't use a set defense against every team and on every play. They adjust during the game based on their opponent's offensive tendencies, an individual player's performance and the game situation. Coaches would call this "mixing it up." Nash would have called it "mixed-strategy equilibrium."

Sophisticated adherents of Nash Equilibrium analyze the range of opponent's moves before picking a strategy. This has a parallel in marketing research – size up competition, gauge the consumer attraction of competitive features, test consumer needs and preferences, then pick a marketing strategy.

Marketing is a comfortable fit in the house that Nash built. But while he described the game, it takes research to know how to play the game well.

Again, back to sports. If a team kicking penalty shots always kicked the ball to one side, the goalie would be wise to lean in that direction. If kicks go to both sides of the net, the goalie has to adopt a more balanced posture – unless he knows that a particular penalty kicker has tendencies that allow the goalie to guess.

The takeaway from Nash is most strategies are nuanced.

What market research contributes to Nash's brilliance is the knowledge to make nuanced strategies work.

A Death Sentence for a Dying Punishment

A jury sentenced Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death today, but by the time all his appeals have been exhausted American attitudes toward the death penalty may have shift to opposition.

A jury sentenced Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death today, but by the time all his appeals have been exhausted American attitudes toward the death penalty may have shift to opposition.

A  jury today sentenced convicted Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the death penalty, as support among Americans for the death penalty is declining, but still the majority view.

Pew Research conducted a poll in April that found 56 percent of Americans support the death penalty and 38 percent oppose it. In 1995, 78 percent of Americans favored the death penalty, but support has sharply declined ever since. Opposition to the death penalty bottomed out in 1995 at 18 percent and has steadily climbed.

The Pew poll indicated only 40 percent of Democrats support the death penalty, compared to 77 percent of Republicans.

Viewpoints among racial groups vary widely. Sixty-three percent of whites favor the death penalty, contrasted to 34 percent of blacks and 45 percent of Hispanics. Seventy-seven percent of blacks say minorities are more likely to receive death sentences for similar crimes committed by whites. Whites are evenly divided on the issue of disproportionate death sentences.

Attitudes about the death penalty vary widely between supporters and opponents. For example, 90 percent of those who favor the death penalty view it as morally justified, while only 26 percent of opponents agree it is morally justified. Forty-two percent of supporters believe minorities are more likely to be sentenced to death, while 68 percent of opponents hold that belief.

Interestingly, 49 percent of death penalty supporters doubt it as a deterrent to crime; 78 percent of opponents share that doubt. Sixty-three percent of supporters and 84 percent of opponents acknowledge "some risk of putting innocent people to death."

Data shows death row executions peaked in 1999 and have fallen since then. Six states have abolished the death penalty since 2004. By far and away, the largest percentage of executions occur in Southern states.

Another factor influencing views about the death penalty is how long appeals take, leaving people on death rows for decades. Critics of the death penalty have pointed to the extra judicial and incarceration costs posed by death sentences.

The Boston jury's verdict today won't be the last word on Tsarnaev's death sentence, which could take years to unfold. By then, support for the death penalty may have eroded even further.