While the 2016 presidential election has been one of the most compelling (and wildly unpredictable) campaigns of our lifetime, one thing has been consistent: Polling dominates the conversation. No matter how outrageous and bizarre the claims, counterclaims and revelations for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, we wait for the polls to know the real impact. And every new poll triggers headlines across all media platforms within minutes.
Polls have performed quite well in this campaign—so far. Trump’s rise surprised some in the GOP, but the primary polls saw it coming months in advance. Bernie Sanders’ ascent was swift, but also clear from polling, as was his eventual ceiling. Polling has served as a corrective for some off-base predictions throughout.
At the same time, the polling industry faces new challenges. The difficulties with conducting telephone surveys are clear to anybody with a cell phone and caller ID. It’s never been easier to conduct a poll on your own: $25 can get you a SurveyMonkey account, and a few grand can get you questions on a national online omnibus survey. Public polls abound; Trump said he would never hire a pollster, because he gets what he needs for free. (He’s since changed his mind.)
But good polling provides much more than info on the horserace of politics, especially when it’s used for business and communications strategy. In a world of ever more data, smart and distilled analysis that helps set your strategy and provides you recommendations that you can use today has never been more important.
So how can you think and act like a good pollster when you are conducting research? Asking questions on a survey is just one step (and not the first one). Have you identified the opportunities and challenges that are behind the project? What are the key insights you need to know to move forward? When you think ahead to the numbers you’ll receive, will you be able to generate usable, actionable insights, or just have a printout of numbers that sit on the shelf?
In other words, when the research is complete, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- What does it say?
- What does it mean?
- Does it matter?
- What, if anything, should we do about it?
These are simple questions, but too often, research falls short on one or all of these.
For another perspective on how to think like a solid opinion researcher, take a look at Disney's theme parks, where its “cast members” focus on uncovering and delivering on what the customer wants—not just on what the customer asks. That’s how they create opportunities to exceed customer expectations every hour of every day.
This training comes into play when staff faces the most common question at Disney: “What time is the 3 p.m. parade?” Disney staff are taught to identify and respond to the underlying concerns—to build a strategy for success, not just answer a question and leave the room.
In case you were wondering, the answer to that question is almost never "3 p.m." Customers might be asking:
- Where is the best place to watch the 3 p.m. parade?
- If the parade starts at 3 p.m., when should I get there?
- I’m standing at the clock tower, what time does the parade pass?
- When does the parade end, so I can get back to the hotel?
- My family wants to see the Disney characters, can I do that before the parade?
The difference between how cast members interpret the question and the answers they give is key to customer satisfaction.
You should enter any research project prepared to answer your, your team, or your client’s 3 p.m. parade question. Do you want to conduct another poll because that seems like the right thing to do, or are you working with your colleagues and stakeholders to generate creative ideas and feedback that help you with your business and communications challenges?
A survey is a tool. Findings are a deliverable. But strategic direction and actionable results are the "why" behind good research. If you want to think like a pollster, you should always be thinking about the end result: generating insights that help you execute your job, your communications plan, your ad campaign better. Analysis and ideas that help you achieve your business and strategic objectives. Otherwise, you’re not getting what you can out of your research—you’re just another survey monkey.
Doug Usher, Ph.D. is managing partner at Purple Insights.