Political Polling 2.0: Can Social Media Save Political Survey Research?
Kristen Soltis (Washington, DC) –
As landlines become less and less prevalent, and as people become less and less interested in talking to pollsters, how will the field of opinion research evolve and survive? I believe that the answer is to completely rethink how we approach public opinion research. This doesn’t just mean finding new ways to ask survey questions to people, but rather developing ways to interpret the opinions that people post daily on social media platforms like Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter. Here, I argue that the field of public opinion research needs to break from the current “pose a question, get an answer” paradigm.
The Not-So-Mysteriously Vanishing Response Rates
The weekend before the November 2010 election, I got out of Washington for the weekend and spent some in Florida. Between the House, the Senate, and the Governor’s race,the state had no shortage of political activity during the fall. No television program was safe from political advertising; no mailbox went unstuffed.
But most stunning,in my opinion, was the all-out assault on voters via landline telephone. Evidently, my parents had simply stopped picking up the phone. Yet that Saturday, a familiar name appeared on the caller ID.
I’ve worked as a survey researcher for five years now, and as a result I feel an obligation to participate in surveys when presented to me. Furthermore, there was a chance this would be for the Gallup Daily Tracking poll, one of the most relied-upon barometers of how the election is likely to go. I was excited.
Yet it should surprise no one that I was the only person in the household excited about the prospect of taking this survey. My father, the intended recipient of the call, was uninterested in participation. Even with his pollster daughter standing there, holding the phone, he just couldn’t be bothered.
Welcome to the wonderful world of being a 21st century pollster!
How To Save Opinion Research: Don’t Ask, They’ll Tell
The tough reality of polling these days is this: it is increasingly difficult to reach people, and when you eventually do, they don’t want to talk to you. At conferences and over casual lunches, pollsters will commiserate over declining response rates. Pew released a report about declining response rates in 2006 which acknowledged the “serious concerns” raised, and five years later we’re certainly in worse shape.
Landline telephone coverage is getting worse and worse. People are hanging up on us. Researchers are looking at cell phones and internet panels to save them, but those tools are still imperfect too.
Being in my twenties and in the field of opinion research, I’m extremely nervous that I’m seeing the main tools of my industry become useless right before my eyes. Sure, the surveys you hear about in the news are generally fine, and survey research is still an incredibly useful tool for companies, campaigns, and the media. But every day makes it tougher and tougher to get an accurate snapshot of public opinion. What will this career field look like in five, fifteen, or thirty years?
More and more, I’m starting to think we’re simply going to have rethink “public opinion research” entirely. And first, oddly enough, we’re going to have to move beyond asking people to give us their opinions. Think about it: a survey implies asking, approaching a subject, providing questions, and hoping they will answer.
The great irony of it all is that at just the moment that people are telling less and less to pollsters, they are telling more and more about their lives – their preferences, beliefs, habits – on the Internet.
Social Networks To The Rescue
A great blog post by GOP tech whiz Patrick Ruffini first piqued my interest in this subject in 2007. In this post at TechPresident, Ruffini wrote about findings from a dive into Facebook’s ad targeting engine. Essentially, Ruffini was able to capture the universe of “liberals” or “conservatives” and then identify common traits. More liberals liked Radiohead, for instance, than conservatives (a pity, too). His post looks at common traits of the politically active, and wraps up with the sentence: “Could Facebook be the greatest microtargeting engine ever built?”
Some three years later, I’m starting to think that a larger version of this original idea could save the opinion research field, shifting it to a new paradigm.
Facebook currently boasts over 500 million active users, with 70% of Facebook users outside of the United States. This means there are at least 150 million users in the United States – a not insignificant number (about half the country). In 2010, it was estimated that the average Facebook user is 38 years old, and that 61% of users are 35 or older.
But let’s also look at social networking beyond Facebook. Pew Research estimates that, when it comes to social networking in general, around 86% of people under 30 years old are represented, which is much higher than the coverage you get for that age group from looking at landline phones. Social media presents new opportunities to reach previously hard-to-reach voter segments.
Inviting New Methods To The Club
What’s interesting isn’t just the fact that people of all ages are using these sites. What’s interesting is what people are putting on these sites. Let’s go back to Facebook. They estimate that the average user is connected to 80 community pages, groups, and events, and that the average user creates 90 pieces of content each month.
Almost one hundred pieces of potentially valuable pieces of content created each month.
With survey research, if I want to find out what people like, what they think, what they identify with, I have to ask. But at 90 pieces of content a month, it’s possible people are already giving me the information I want.
Instead of getting better at asking, it may turn out that researchers need to get better at discovering.
The idea of sorting through the opinions that people regularly provide, openly and freely on social networking sites and blogging platforms, isn’t yet something that the broader public opinion field is seriously considering. Yes, there are “buzz monitoring” firms out there which will tell you if the cool kids are tweeting about your new clothing label or band. And yes, there are folks at tech-focused firms who are beginning to tap into this (for instance, New Media Strategies’ Mark LeMunyon’s analysis of the State of the Union). But they haven’t been formally embraced as a serious extension of the public opinion research community. There’s still an enormous amount of room for growth.
I am almost positive that the way I do my job ten years from now will look radically different than it does today. It will have to whether I like it or not. But I think the most critical first step will be a change in the narrow way we think about “public opinion research” as confined to the world of surveys, dial tests and focus groups.
The bad news is that people aren’t really telling pollsters their opinions as much anymore. The good news is that as an alternative, they’re telling the world.
Kristen Soltis is a guest writer for Publicyte. She is the director of strategic research at The Winston Group, a DC-based opinion research and consulting firm. She can be reached on Twitter at @KLSoltis.