Political Polling Mostly for Fun

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took aim at early polling this week after one poll showed his support in the Republican presidential nomination sweepstakes at a minuscule 4 percent. 

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took aim at early polling this week after one poll showed his support in the Republican presidential nomination sweepstakes at a minuscule 4 percent. 

Even though Fox News will rely on political polls to decide which GOP presidential candidates are invited onto the big-stage debate next week, polls right now don't mean very much.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took aim at early polling this week after one poll showed his support in the Republican presidential nomination sweepstakes at a minuscule 4 percent. He said the poll showed only 14 percent of GOP voters were undecided. "I think it is more likely that 14 percent are decided," he said.

While early polling is mostly useful as a private guide for political contributors, this year's polling has burst into headlines because of the crowded candidate field and more recently the surprising emergence of Donald Trump as the frontrunner.

Trump's brashness has been credited for his sudden rise in the polls, which has inspired – or reduced – other candidates into similar incendiary campaign antics, such as Mike Huckabee comparing the Iran nuclear deal to the Holocaust or Rand Paul torching the federal tax code.

The criteria for the first GOP presidential debate also has underscored political polling, especially the collective underperformance of most of the should-be-frontrunner candidates and the tight grouping of second-level candidates.

If the political polls tell any story, it may be that shouting louder is the winning strategy for gaining media coverage and pushing up poll numbers. But the story can be hugely incomplete. Trump, for example, may look good now, but will his tactics become tiresome and result in higher negative ratings? Will someone further back in the pack strike a nerve, whether on the debate stage or not? Will the muddle of a primary prompt GOP leaders to urge Mitt Romney to enter the race as the Republican white knight?

Political polls for the moment are mostly good for summer-time conversation on the back deck. The results will soon fade as the leaves turn colors and the snow starts falling. Enjoy the fun while it lasts.

Rats, Research and Repetition

Rats can teach humans something about communications. Rats, like humans, are wary of anything new, so the best communications should be on familiar turf.

Rats can teach humans something about communications. Rats, like humans, are wary of anything new, so the best communications should be on familiar turf.

Rats are an invaluable research tool. We usually think of them as stand-ins for humans on early clinical trials for new drugs or procedures. But maybe rates also can gives us clues on communications.

At least Clark Hays, an author and recovering cowboy, thinks so.

In a LinkedIn blog post, Hays says rats are extremely nervous about anything new, which they fear could be dangerous or fatal. "They restlessly, obsessively patrol their environment in search of new things, then studiously avoid those things until they are sure they aren’t dangerous or toxic (lessons learned, probably from living alongside trap- and poison-happy humans)."

People, Hays adds, have a similar reaction to new things. That's why, he suggests, familiar communications channels – newsletters, emails and meetings – have a residual value. People know what to expect.

Hays made his observations in regard to internal communications. That could just as easily apply to external communications. He talks of culture and consistency as guideposts for communications. Audiences are more likely to listen in customary places and absorb information that falls within the frame of their culture.

Too often, Hays writes, communicators are tasked with changing cultures. What they are really asking, he says, is to change how culture is discussed. "Truly changing a culture requires identifying and eliminating or minimizing negative traits and rewarding and amplifying positive traits, and closing the gap between words and actions." Treading on familiar ground can be a safer platform to explore a new frontier.

Hays says humans can take a lesson from "ratricide," where one rat or a group of rats is shunned by the larger group. "Rats, like humans, are highly social creatures and social exclusion can prove, quite literally, fatal for rats. Even with no obvious physical injuries, some rats shunned by their peers seem to simply lose the will to live and soon waste away."

"Communications are how humans stay connected – sharing words, thoughts, stories, dreams, fears and more," Hays observes. "Without those connections, we suffer."

"Professionally, that holds true within organizations, where lack of considerate, consistent and creative communications can rightly be considered a form of social exclusion," Hays says. "While not fatal, poor communications can lead to apathy and disengagement that undermine efforts to create a vibrant community, linked to a healthy culture and focused on achieving desired results. And that is fatal for an organization."

Business Use of Digital Media Skyrockets

Businesses are using video confrencing tools more than ever before. 

Businesses are using video confrencing tools more than ever before. 

Business use of digital media has skyrocketed during the past eight years for tools such as Facebook, LinkedIn and video. While e-newsletters were the most popular form of digital media in 2007, it is not among the top four in 2015.  

These are some of the key findings from an Input survey among 318 decision-makers in Oregon and SW Washington conducted by CFM on behalf of Oregon Business. 

The survey found the most popular digital communication tools used for business and professional purposes were business social networking sites, such as LinkedIn (64%), texting (61%) and social networking sites (58%). A majority of decision-makers also use live video, such as Skype or GoToMeeting (55%) and e-newsletters (53%).  

Use of some tools has grown dramatically. The share of people using business social networking and texting has more than doubled since 2007, while use of consumer social media sites has increased six-fold. On the other hand, use of e-newsletters has increased just 10 points since 2007 and blogging remains one of the less frequently used tools. 

Increased business use of digital media is not surprising. Based on a variety of CFM research efforts for private and public clients, CFM has found customers and business colleagues are using online communication and engagement tools to get information and connect with friends and business associates. Essentially, businesses have learned to go where the people are. 

CFM predicts use of video will continue to grow during the next few years because mobile media use is increasing rapidly, recording videos and posting to social media and websites is easy, and people are sharing videos with colleagues and friends.  

The online Input survey was conducted in March 2015.

Insight and Research: Compatible Companions

Both Steve Jobs and Henry Ford were innovators, as well as marketing icons. 

Both Steve Jobs and Henry Ford were innovators, as well as marketing icons. 

Henry Ford said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Ford's glib comment misses the marketing principle that drove his innovation – if he could make a cheap car, more people could afford to buy one.

Insight and market research exist side by side. Both are valuable. And to a greater extent that some realize, they are interdependent.

Steve Jobs is a more contemporary advocate of intuition. Like Ford, Jobs innovated in service of a basic marketing goal – if computers could be made simpler, more people would be willing to buy one.

Ford and Jobs are actually marketing icons, not non-believers. Both saw possibilities beyond what existed. They assembled technologies and talents to achieve a goal – a breakthrough product that demanded attention, fueled  a desire and then fulfilled it.  Marketeers Al Ries and Jack Trout would say Ford and Jobs followed the "immutable laws of marketing," not broke them.

Ford and Jobs were skilled at marketing how their products could change people's lives. A functional, affordable car translated increased personal mobility and freedom. A computer that didn't take a degree in rocket science to operate opened the door to unimagined creative opportunities. Making and buying cars for average Americans became a symbol for emerging middle class status. User-friendly computers enabled grandparents to talk face to face to their grandchildren dozens of zip codes away.

Too often, market research is reduced to gobs of data and sterile analytics. Good market research is much more than that. It reveals what people think, how they describe what they want and why they buy certain products and not others. Good market research is about people, not numbers.

A focus group of children playing with new toys demonstrates how insight and observable behavior can be viewed and assessed. Toy designers must have insight into what will appeal to childish eyes and observers at a focus group with multiple children and multiple toys can see which ones have the most appeal.

Market research can show that some creative ideas just don't work. That's not failure; that's avoiding an expensive mistake on a new product or advertising campaign.

Don't be lulled into the insight versus research debate. It's not a debate; it's a specious argument. Insight can be good. And it can be great if tested and tweaked.

Where Research, Branding and Product Design Meet

The former Blitz-Weinhard brewery introduced a popular beer designed by guys sitting at a bar. They provided the research and branding that a brewmaster turned into a best seller.

The former Blitz-Weinhard brewery introduced a popular beer designed by guys sitting at a bar. They provided the research and branding that a brewmaster turned into a best seller.

A Blitz-Weinhard marketing guy sat at the bar at Jake's Famous Crawfish night after night asking customers what they would like to drink that wasn't on the menu.

That patient, first-person inquiry led to the development and introduction of Weinhard's Blue Boar Red, a hoppy amber beer intended for people who like good beer.

Those one-on-one interviews with beer drinkers produced a recipe for the color, complexion and finish of a beer product that didn't exist. The marketing guy handed the customer specs to the brewmaster, who turned it into a successful commercial product.

This is a great example of the intersection of research, branding and product design – in that order.

Many companies and entrepreneurs come up with the product, then try to figure out what makes it distinctive and who would be interested in buying it. That may account for why a lot of new products and enterprises fail. You develop what you want to sell, not necessarily what anyone wants to buy.

Innovative product designs can be box office hits. But the odds improve for success if you do research first, branding second and product design third.

In our welter world of proliferating communication channels and diminishing attention spans, your intended audience may never notice your unbelievably great product. Greatness isn't a typical, quantifiable product feature. People are interested in products that solve their problems, meet their needs or satisfy an unmet wish.

Starting with research is the only rational course. Marketing plans depend on solid research. So does branding. And, by extension, so do sales.

Research doesn't have to involve a telephone survey. For new product design, such research is close to useless. If polled, no one would have urged a manufacturer to create a computer. Once Steve Jobs created a unique computer with an intuitive interface and vast graphic capabilities, he sold it by showing people how it could be used.

Some inventors view it as dishonest or dishonorable to create something simply because it addresses an existing problem. That is wrongheaded. This is exactly why you should create a product or service.

Most often, you aren't the only one working on a solution. You have competitors. You need to design a product or service with a distinctive advantage, something that makes your product stick out. We call that branding.

Effective branding depends on research to know what qualities people want in a product. Someone may design a product that comes in different colors. But you would be smart to design the same product with a simpler operation in a single color if simple is what potential buyers want. You can add colors later in the "new and improved version."

If you know what potential buyers want or need and design a product with a distinctive feature or quality that meets consumer demand, marketing is like following a map instead of solving a riddle. Your research will have told you what people want – and where they will go for information or to buy the products that met their needs. Your marketing channels will have been identified.

Research also can reveal who your potential customers look to for credible advice. A savvy marketing campaign will push those information sources to the forefront – in testimonials and as spokespersons.

It is a wonderful feeling to take a warm shower and have an epiphany of the next great thing. Dry off, comb your hair and write on your foggy mirror – research first, branding second, product design third. That will save you a lot of consternation and preserve your energy for the challenges that can lead to successful sales.

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.