research

Polling for All Seasons, Tastes and Political Stripes

If the blizzard of polls overwhelms you, one solution is to tune into FiveThirtyEight, which summarizes recent polls, aggregates multiple polls to see trends and covers a wide range of topics from politics to sports to culture.

If the blizzard of polls overwhelms you, one solution is to tune into FiveThirtyEight, which summarizes recent polls, aggregates multiple polls to see trends and covers a wide range of topics from politics to sports to culture.

Election season means leaves change color and political polls fall like rain. Keeping track of all the polls and making sense out of them is beyond the capability of most of us. Thank goodness for FiveThirtyEight. 

FiveThirtyEight, named after the number of electors in the US Electoral College, launched in 2008 as a polling aggregation site. The idea was and remains that looking collectively at polls is more useful than focusing on a single poll, which can be influenced by the skill and methodology of an individual pollster. The fivethirtyeight.com website was acquired last April by ABC News.

In a weekly roundup of polling, called Pollapalooza, the site reports on the “Poll of the Week” and provides a quick reference and links to a wide range of political polls. This week’s Pollapalozza blog centers on polling that FiveThirtyEight shows support for President Trump flagging while support for Robert Mueller’s Russian interference investigation rising. 

The blog started with findings from a CNN poll that shows 61 percent of respondents believe the Mueller investigation is serious and should continue, up 6 points from a month ago. Poll findings indicate 72 percent of respondents believe Trump should testify under oath (+4 points since June) and 47 percent think Trump should be impeached (+5 points since June).

The latest poll by Quinnipiac, which has a slight tilt toward the right, produced complementary results. Respondents by a 55-32 margin said the Mueller investigation is fair, up 4 points from a Quinnipiac poll conducted a month ago.

FiveThirtyEight is the brainchild of  Nate Silver , who brings a statistician’s eye to everything from political races to baseball sabermetrics. He has steered his informative and sometimes provocative blog through transitions that included the New York Times, ESPN and now ABC News. His statistical approach to politics and other subject areas has drawn a large following and earned him the label of ‘disruptive’ of status quo thinking.

FiveThirtyEight is the brainchild of Nate Silver, who brings a statistician’s eye to everything from political races to baseball sabermetrics. He has steered his informative and sometimes provocative blog through transitions that included the New York Times, ESPN and now ABC News. His statistical approach to politics and other subject areas has drawn a large following and earned him the label of ‘disruptive’ of status quo thinking.

Numbers were different, but the margins were similar in a YouGov poll, which indicated respondents approved of the Mueller investigation by a 49 percent to 30 percent margin. 

If you tire of reading about the Russian investigation, Pollapalozza offers a guide to other recent research. For example: 

  • 58 percent of Americans want the senior Trump official who wrote an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times to identify himself or herself. (CNN poll)

  • A plurality of respondents say it’s “not very important” or “not important at all” for a political candidate to have strong religious beliefs. (Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research)

  • “Two-thirds of Americans rely on social media to get at least some of their news, but more than half of those people expect the news on social medial to be largely inaccurate.” (Pew Research Center)

  • “Among Americans who lost trust in media, 7 in 10 say that trust can be restored.” (Gallup and Knight Foundation)

If politics isn’t your thing, the FiveThirtyEight website serves up the latest news in sports, science & health, economics and culture.

In the culture category, the site’s blog, called Significant Digits, reported the results from a Washington Post survey of 50 cities that found police departments with lower caseloads of homicides have higher arrest rates while the opposite is true for cities with higher caseloads. “Major police departments that are successful at making arrests in homicides generally assign detectives fewer than five cases annually,” according to survey findings as reported in the newspaper under the headline, “Buried under bodies.”

The sports section is peppered with stories such as why the NFL, reputedly a passing league, doesn’t throw enough passes or a piece pitting “old-school stats” versus “fancy-pants analytics” in Major League Baseball.

FiveThirtyEight is pretty much like having your cake and political polling, too. It is worth some clicks.

 

Curiosity and the Chocolate Chip Cookie

The New York Times story about the overlooked woman who invented the chocolate chip chocolate is a reminder that useful, relevant information can be found anywhere, even in  an obituary, if you are curious enough top look

The New York Times story about the overlooked woman who invented the chocolate chip chocolate is a reminder that useful, relevant information can be found anywhere, even in  an obituary, if you are curious enough top look

Curiosity is a mental tool you want to keep sharp and never get rusty. Curiosity can help you find valuable, interesting information in nooks, crannies and obituaries.

The New York Times has a series called “Overlooked” that mines stories from old death notices about women of note who were ignored. Its latest “uncovery” is Ruth Wakefield, the inventor of the chocolate chip cookie in the 1930s. Her original creation was named the Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie, a paean to the restaurant she and her husband ran in eastern Massachusetts.

Like many inventions, Wakefield was trying to create something else – a variation of a thin butterscotch nut cookie served with ice cream. As related in the “Overlooked” story, Wakefield wanted to melt squares of chocolate to add to the butterscotch batter, but only had a Nestlé chocolate bar. Without enough time to melt the bar, she wielded an ice pick to create bits of chocolate that she poured into the dough. The chunks of chocolate didn’t melt and the chocolate chip cookie was born.

The author of a book about chocolate chip cookies casts doubt on the “dumb luck” version of their creation, claiming Wakefield was too much of a perfectionist to produce something so yummy by accident. Inadvertent or not, Wakefield gave the world a “revolutionary” mouth-watering taste treat.

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Perhaps knowing the history of the chocolate chip cookie won’t solve any of your everyday problems, but it should kindle your sense of curiosity, the foundation for research.

Research is far more than telephone surveys or focus groups. Research also includes talking to people, listening, asking questions and being open to new information and information channels. Research can involve actively exploring what competitors or opponents are saying and doing, and where they are saying and doing it. Research can mean treating the world around you like a library with accumulated knowledge waiting to be discovered. Actually the library of the world is at your fingertips on a laptop or mobile device.

Curiosity may seem like a random way to search for what you need to know. However, curious people have a sharpened sense of where relevant information can be found or reliable sources you can point to where the information exists. In that sense, curious people are like scouts who pay attention to minute details of their surroundings to chart a path forward.

Too often, we fail to scour the past for information. The “Overlooked” series reminds us that history can be one of the best teachers. Did Wakefield accidentally discover the chocolate chip cookie or did she land on it after purposeful trial and error? It is more than a trivial historical question; it is the start of a conversation about our own search for the “next big thing.”

As a cub reporter on a small daily newspaper in Port Angeles, Washington, one of my first assignments was to write obituaries using notes from funeral homes. It occurred to me, this could be a lot more than a rote assignment. I started calling funeral home directors and asking for more details. That led me to contact family members and ask them to reminisce. What they told me turned death notices into front-page feature stories, describing the lives of men and women who in their own way shaped the community in which they lived and died.

Even though I only worked in Port Angeles for three years, I knew more about what made it tick than I did my own home town where I grew up. My job in Port Angeles gave me a license to be curious. It’s a license I’ve tried to avoid allowing to lapse.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 

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.”

The Trump Triumph of Earned Media

The numbers show Donald Trump snuffed out his GOP presidential competitors for nightly network TV news coverage. The reason was Trump’s skill at earning free coverage, not media bias.

The numbers show Donald Trump snuffed out his GOP presidential competitors for nightly network TV news coverage. The reason was Trump’s skill at earning free coverage, not media bias.

The power of earned media has never been more evident than in the 2016 presidential campaign by Donald Trump. However, one media analyst believes that Trump is getting an extra boost because of news bias.

While most other presidential aspirants have spent millions, Trump has spent relatively little on paid advertising. Trump's bombastic, no-holds-barred speaking style, combined with punchy, pungent tweets, have kept him in the limelight – and perhaps sucked the oxygen out of his opponents’ campaigns.

The Media Research Center, a politically conservative news content organization based in Virginia, analyzed the evening coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC from January through October last year and found Trump received 116 minutes of air time from January through July and 266 minutes from August through October. Trump’s share of coverage of the GOP presidential race in the latter part of 2015 exceeded 56 percent.

From August to October, Jeb Bush garnered the next highest share of coverage, with 57 minutes, or around 12 percent. He got a higher share from January to July with 72 minutes, equaling 22.8 percent.

Scott Walker, who dropped out of the race after a couple of months, earned more minutes from January to October than Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, the only remaining candidates within shouting distance of Trump.

Some candidates’ exposure on network nightly news was clocked in seconds. Rick Santorum racked up 111 seconds of coverage from January to July, then slipped to just 33 seconds from August to October. If you blinked, you might have missed George Pataki’s candidacy, which earned around a minute of coverage. Jim Gilmore, who didn't end his candidacy until last week, received zero coverage.

Media Research Center analysts blamed the disparity on liberal news media bias. They claim the bloated coverage for Trump was intended to winnow the GOP field and, in particular, squeeze out politically conservative candidates.

The data produced by the Media Research Center seems to tell another story. The “establishment” candidates, such as Chris Christie, John Kasich and Lindsey Graham, didn’t fare any better than their more outspokenly conservative colleagues. In fact, Ben Carson received 55 minutes of coverage late last year, which was double the coverage of Carly Fiorina and Rubio and nine times the coverage of Christie and Kasich.

The story told by the data is that Trump stole the show. Using insults, talk show appearances, provocative proposals and profanity, Trump commanded the airwaves. He was a reliable daily sound bite. And he was willing to talk any time of day or night.

Trump’s emergence as the Republican frontrunner is a story in itself, but he added a story hook with virtually every appearance he made. In the world of strategic communications, we call that earned media, and Trump got a lot of it.

Bush got some of his coverage by bashing Trump. Carson earned much of his by inching up momentarily to Trump.

You can blast Trump for manipulating the media, but you have to compliment the guy for doing it so well and so often.

Earned media kudos also should go to Vice President Joe Biden who collected 110 minutes of network TV nightly news coverage from last August to October as he toyed publicly with entering the Democratic presidential race. As the Media Research Center grumbled, that’s a lot more coverage for a candidacy that never materialized than for GOP candidates who were out on the political stump. And the reason for Biden’s success – his skill at earning free media coverage.

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."

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.