Why Representative Samples Really Matter

If you want market research that matters, make sure the sample of people in your survey matches the audience you want to reach with your product or message.

If you want market research that matters, make sure the sample of people in your survey matches the audience you want to reach with your product or message.

A favorite story involves meeting with a client interested in promoting first-time homeownership. I mentioned the need for market research. No problem, the client said, we have that covered. I was handed the research summary and, as a matter of habit, jumped to the page about the telephone survey sample. It was very revealing. 

More than 50 percent of the respondents were 65 years or older. They were the majority of people who answered the phone and were willing to spend 15 or 20 minutes talking to a stranger about owning a home. Unfortunately, they weren’t the people the client had in mind as first-time homebuyers. 

Survey data is worthless unless the sample of who you interview reflects the audience you seek to reach. The sample in my client’s survey would have been terrific if the subject was reverse mortgages. It stunk as a reflection of who to address potential first-time homebuyers. 

Conversations between clients and research professionals must start with who to interview. If you have the wrong sample, the answers you get from the questions you pore over won’t matter a lick. 

Too often, the question of who to interview is glossed over. Sometimes the most obvious sample goes overlooked. When I was a lobbyist, a client hired me to “fix” his message that wasn’t gaining any traction with legislators. I started by interviewing about a third of the legislature, including virtually all of the lawmakers on the committees that were most engaged on my client’s issue. 

The interviews produced a wealth of insight. My client’s issue had latent support, but needed to be explained and demonstrated in a far different way. Lawmakers basically wrote the script my client and I used to lobby them. And it worked. 

Representative samples are harder to achieve for a mix of reasons. For example, increasing numbers of people don’t have landline phones and, if they do, they shield themselves from unsolicited calls with Caller ID. It takes a lot more calls, at greater expense, to collect a representative sample. Market research must cope with growing segmentation, which adds extra layers of complexity in selecting the right group of people to survey. 

The value of representative samples goes beyond quantitative research. Focus groups must be representative, too. And why would you do a customer satisfaction intercept survey for Nordstrom by interviewing people coming out of a rival department store? Representative samples matter in public opinion polling. A poll of New York voters wouldn’t be all that useful in projecting election results in Indiana. 

Despite the difficulty, solid research is grounded on good samples. Who you talk to matters if you want findings that mean something for your marketing.  

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Housing Supply Key to Price Inflation

Making room for more housing, whether by physical expansion or zoning changes that allow upward growth, is a key to modulating housing prices – and possibly to bolstering family incomes.

Making room for more housing, whether by physical expansion or zoning changes that allow upward growth, is a key to modulating housing prices – and possibly to bolstering family incomes.

Cities that make room for more housing have faced less housing-price inflation, according to an analysis by BuildZoom which drew the eye of the Wall Street Journal.

Issi Romem, an economist for BuildZoom, divides the urban landscape into “expansive cities” versus “expensive cities." 

He cited as an example the San-Francisco-San Jose area, which experienced a sharp population increase, but added only 30 percent more land for residential development between 1980 and 2010. Housing prices during that time period, he said, rose 188 percent. Romem contrasted that to Atlanta, which in the same time period expanded by 208 percent with housing prices increasing by only 14 percent.

The BuildZoom report shows Seattle expanding its residential footprint by 69 percent as housing prices rose by 119 percent. Portland was among the cities analyzed with the least physical expansion and rising housing prices nearing 80 percent.

WSJ reporter Laura Kusisto wrote, “Mr. Romem’s research reads on its face like an argument for suburban sprawl, which has come under fire both for its environmental consequences and tendency to lead to oversupply that can lead home prices to crash.”

Romem says the issue is less about sprawl than supply and demand. Ideally, he explains, cities would relax regulations to allow building up. However, adding density to existing neighborhoods can be unpopular, regardless of whether it involves the addition of tiny houses, building on open space or replacing single-family homes with multifamily apartments.

“If you don’t let the city grow,” Romem said, “you’re going to get prices going upward and see the middle class being pushed out.”

The Portland City Club’s recently released housing affordability study echoed many of Romem’s points as it recommended removing barriers to a wider array of housing types and a housing land bank to convert underutilized or foreclosed properties to housing.

While the BuildZoom research centers on major urban areas, the supply-and-demand problem also vexes suburban areas. Portland suburbs have seen price escalation in part because of voter rejection of annexations that would add more housing. Opponents have claimed sizable housing developments would overtax already congested roads and crowded schools.

The Portland metropolitan area’s land-use is constrained by an urban growth boundary, which is intended to restrict urban development and protect farmland from urban sprawl. The strategy has resulted in relatively small urbanized land expansion, forcing higher-density uses on and within the urban growth boundary. It also has led to sometimes awkward infill development and the exodus of families to what have become commuter communities outside the UGB such as Newberg, North Plains and even Keizer.

Housing patterns are being heavily influenced by different demographic preferences and economic realities. Baby Boomers are retiring and moving to smaller housing units nearer central cities. Young professionals, often burdened by high college student debt, are looking to rent, not buy. Some younger people are forsaking the whole “home is my castle” idea and settling for smaller, simpler housing that applies less pressure on their pocketbook and lifestyle choices.

Romem suggests businesses will be attracted to cities with available affordable housing and perhaps be turned off by cities without a supply of affordable housing. The economic consequences of inadequate housing supply are not just a concern for homebuilders and local boosters. President Obama’s White House advisers have pointed to a lagging housing supply as a major barrier to full economic recovery and higher incomes.

Artificial constraints on housing supply hinders mobility and increasing mobility is going to be an important part of the solution of increasing incomes and increasing incomes across generations,” says Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. 

Baseball Before Becoming the National Pastime

New documents reopen the question of who invented baseball, reminding us of the colorful characters who were involved in what has become America’s national pastime – all just in time for the opening of a new season.

New documents reopen the question of who invented baseball, reminding us of the colorful characters who were involved in what has become America’s national pastime – all just in time for the opening of a new season.

The 2016 Major League Baseball season has begun, with opening day games postponed by snow, a marquee matchup of the two teams that played for the World Championship last year and a new founder.

Baseball fans revere the past as much as popcorn and beer at games, so it's “news" that Alexander Cartwright isn’t the originator of the game after all. It may actually be a guy named Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams.

Cartwright has been credited with establishing in 1860 the rules of what was then called Base Ball. He was inducted posthumously into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where a plaque hangs to mark his founding achievement. Congress in 1953 declared Cartwright the inventor of modern baseball.

Newly uncovered documents, however, show Adams laid out the rules of baseball, which included 90-foot base paths, nine-inning games and called strikes, three years earlier in 1857. Even that may not be the whole story.

For a long time, the baseball world believed the game’s inventor was Abner Doubleday, who served as a general in the Union Army and played a pivotal role in the victory of Gettysburg. His founding role in baseball has been largely debunked. After the Civil War, Doubleday was stationed in San Francisco where he took out the patent on the cable car railway that is still operating today. Later he was listed as a New York lawyer. The closest he apparently came to the national pastime was supplying some bats and balls to his soldiers.

Some baseball historians believe Base Ball rules could date as far back as 1837. That makes sense since the “first Base Ball game” occurred in 1846.

Cartwright helped create the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1842. Adams played for the New York Base Ball Club as early as 1840 before joining the Knickerbockers around 1840. He was connected with the club, including stints as president, until 1860.

Preceding his baseball career, Cartwright worked as a clerk for a Wall Street broker. Baseball for him was a way to get out of a dreary office. Cartwright fled New York to pursue riches in the California gold fields and later moved to Hawaii where he became the the Honolulu fire chief and political adviser to the last Hawaiian king. Thus, the winners of the Hawaii high school baseball championship each year are given the Cartwright Cup.

Adams, who grew up in New Hampshire, graduated from Yale and earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School. When he moved to New York, Adams was involved in providing medical care and vaccinations to poor New Yorkers. He took up baseball the year after he graduated from med school. Records indicate Adams was primarily an infielder and may have originated the position we call “shortstop.” Though box scores, if they existed back then, haven’t survived, there is evidence the left-handed hitting Adams was a slugger, who occasionally plopped a homer into the river just beyond right field.

As a man of science, Adams was interested in more than just the game. He worked to perfect the baseball itself – making it livelier so it would travel farther – and he experimented with early baseball equipment, including bats. Adams also played the flute and performed public duets with Henry Ward Beecher.

The modern MLB season is long, with 30 teams each playing 162 games. Those games have grown longer, with larger gaps between pitches as batters ritualistically tug at their batting gloves. Hopefully this trek through baseball history can provide some amusement for all the down time fans will experience. Play Ball!

Unexpected Business Poll Findings

Findings from a poll of 1,000 business executives seem to contradict day-to-day lobbying by chambers of commerce against a higher minimum wage and paid leave policies.

Findings from a poll of 1,000 business executives seem to contradict day-to-day lobbying by chambers of commerce against a higher minimum wage and paid leave policies.

When you think of heads of business, empathy isn’t the first word that pops to mind. When you think of chambers of commerce, you don’t expect to hear them support a higher minimum wage or paid leave for illness or a new child. However, a poll of 1,000 top-level U.S. business executives suggests some of those impressions may be misplaced.

According to the poll, nearly 80 percent of business executives support raising the minimum wage, while only 8 percent oppose a raise. Support is even higher for maternity and paternity leave and only slightly less for paid sick leave. Executives also expressed more support for "keeping health care costs low for American families” than repealing the Affordable Care Act. This isn’t consistent with how chambers of commerce across the country lobby on these issues. 

The poll was commissioned by the Council of State Chambers and conducted by Luntz Global, which is headed by well known GOP pollster Frank Luntz. For understandable reasons, the poll didn’t see the light of day until The Center for Media and Democracy obtained a copy and made it public. 

"The polled executives want to raise the wage, expand paid sick and maternity leave and support predictive scheduling,” the Center wrote on its website "Their desire to "keep health care costs low for American families" far outstrips their opposition to the Affordable Care Act."

Some of the disconnect between what these business leaders support and what chambers of commerce typically advocate can be explained by how the minimum wage and paid time off impact different business segments. Owners of fast food restaurants are likely to hold a more negative view than the CEO of a manufacturing firm that already pays wages above the higher minimum wage. Nearly half of the business executive respondents to the poll worked for or owned companies with annual revenues of between $50 and $500 million.

Beyond the shock value of the survey findings is the reality that business is not monolithic in its viewpoints. Even chamber of commerce members don’t always share the same view. Of the 1,000 executives interviewed by Luntz Global, 46 percent said they were members of their local chamber of commerce, 28 percent said they belonged to their state chamber and 16 percent said they were affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

It may be too much of a leap to assume the business executive respondents reflect a hidden progressive strain in the C-suite. They may simply view issues such as a higher minimum wage or paid leave policies inevitable or public battles that are destined to lose. Or they may see these policies as basically fair, reflecting policies which they may have already adopted.

Critics of these policies and of the poll itself will say that you can make a poll say anything you want. Loaded questions can skew results, to be sure. But the source of this poll – an organization that serves chambers of commerce and a pollster that works for Republican candidates – probably didn’t slant the questions to fetch the results they got.

The Bilingual Advantage

There are conflicting views and evidence about the bilingual advantage, but it does seem clear speaking more than one language forces the brain to work harder and differently. Plus you may able to impress a date by ordering dinner in French.

There are conflicting views and evidence about the bilingual advantage, but it does seem clear speaking more than one language forces the brain to work harder and differently. Plus you may able to impress a date by ordering dinner in French.

Speaking more than one language may not confuse children, as some predicted, but instead it may improve selective attention and cognitive flexibility. Down the line, the bilingual advantage could help adults ignore distractive information, land better jobs and even forestall brain deterioration in old age.

Anything that sounds that good, of course, may not pan out. Skeptics question whether immersing children in two or more languages produces any long-term advantages.

Despite contradictory perspectives and even clashing scientific studies, there does seem to be some consensus. Bilingual speakers have more active brains. Switching from language to language forces the brain to work harder and differently, much like lifting weights trains muscles.

Advocates of the bilingual advantage note humans natively pick up language from the time they are born until puberty. Young minds are sponges that absorb new words and phrases effortlessly. Multi-tasking minds become sharper and more attentive to detail. Multiple languages also appear to help children see the world in more than one perspective, which improves their odds of being more sensitive to variations later in life.

In Europe, bilingualism is almost unavoidable. In America, it has faced resistance, even antagonism. Newcomers have been told by certain political voices to learn to speak “American,” even though Americans generally speak English. (Nerd alert: The so-called Appalachian dialect may actually derive from Elizabethan English adapted to fit the American frontier.)

Many people who study a foreign language, especially one of the Romance languages, come away with a stronger understanding of English. When you learn Spanish syntax, the lights go on about English syntax, which shares a Latin linguistic ancestry. Language isn’t just something you utter; it is something you begin to understand.

That advantage has been multiplied by research findings from linguists and psychologists, which suggests there are considerable benefits to bilingualism.

Bilingual speakers are constantly toggling between two languages to express themselves. Rather than tongue-tie them, this phenomenon challenges the brain and tunes up its unfathomable capacity. It expands memory, sharpens the ability to differentiate, and it builds high-level thought processes such as “executive function."

Doubters have their proof that single and multi-language speakers perform at basically the same levels. It may be cooler and more romantic to order dinner at a French restaurant in French, but it has little influence on how well your brain functions. 

This is not a debate likely to end soon, similar to whether drinking coffee is good or bad for your health. One potential conclusion is that the bilingual advantage isn’t universal. The advantage may exist, just not for everyone. Or as the French would say, “c’est la vie.”

Keeping a Finger on the Pulse of the Office

As workplace communication continues its rapid evolution in the digital age, Pulse surveys are becoming a trendy tool for company execs looking to frequently gain deeper insights into how their employees feel about their jobs.

As workplace communication continues its rapid evolution in the digital age, Pulse surveys are becoming a trendy tool for company execs looking to frequently gain deeper insights into how their employees feel about their jobs.

Effective communication has never been more important than it is in today’s fast-changing workplace, where social media has replaced the water cooler.

But interestingly enough, few American workers say their companies practice the kind of open communication that helps them do better work. A recent Gallup poll found only 17 percent of workers say open communication exists at all levels of their company, and a meager 27 percent strongly agree that the feedback they get leads to a stronger job performance.

As company execs continuously search for ways to speed up production and improve results, one tool is emerging as a potential game changer in today’s world of constant workplace communication: the pulse survey. The surveys tend to be short, and questions could touch upon anything from whether the new desk chairs are supportive enough for your lower back to the dreaded “Are you happy at work?”

As daunting as that might seem, the surveys are designed to elicit quick feedback about a range of job-related issues and employee needs. And as Annamarie Mann and Jim Harter recently wrote for Gallup, the surveys are proving a versatile tool for tackling all sorts of communication challenges in the office.  

“When used strategically and as complementary tools for larger initiatives, pulse surveys provide valuable data to companies that want the ability to respond quickly to change or increase employee feedback as company initiatives evolve,” they said. “Many leaders know the value of regularly tracking financial metrics. Pulse surveys also allow them to monitor crucial people metrics.”

Instead of falling back on a traditional approach, like annual company surveys, the pulse survey allows employers to reel in feedback from employees throughout the year. The tool gives company leaders a way to follow real-time experiences and develop deeper insights into company culture and how changes affect particular subsets of the office.

“By receiving insights into what employees are thinking about workplace changes – whether they are reacting to a new rule or policy, a new leader or organizational restructuring – leaders and managers can use data from pulse surveys to recalibrate actions, resources and priorities to achieve peak performance,” Mann and Harter said.

Of course, there is also a downside to the pulse survey. Beware that excessive surveying can lead to survey fatigue, Mann and Harter warn. And keep in mind that pulse surveys should be considered a complementary tool as opposed to a solution to a workplace problem.

“Pulse surveys can provide additional perspectives on existing organizational problems or strategic initiatives, but they can't solve problems or improve performance on their own,” Mann and Harter said. “They are best used to support or reinforce other measures and actions.”

Justin Runquist is CFM’s communications counsel. He is a former reporter for The Oregonian, The Columbian and The Spokesman-Review. Away from the office, he’s a baseball fanatic with foolhardy hopes that the Mariners will go to the World Series someday. You can reach Justin at  justinr@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @_JustinRunquist