Monday, May 11, 2015

Why the pollsters disaster about predicting the UK election has lessons for all marketers

If you are not a Brit you probably don't know that last week the UK had an election for the next Government to rule the country. All the pollsters were of one mind about the result, give or take a percentage point and so were the political commentators. They were all horribly wrong.

Needless to say, there are lots of explanations circulating to try and explain what went wrong.

I have my own theory and it has big implications for marketers not only in the UK but in the US and Europe and especially those involved with older consumers.

Researching voter intentions is an expensive and difficult problem  - no doubt about that - and I suspect the research industry has become complacent. So what went wrong?

I think there are five issues:

An over reliance on online research.  
In market, and that includes political markets, where there are lots, maybe the majority who are not that digitally literate, it is easy to underestimate the views of those who prefer pens to PCs. Marketers in the UK still are astonished to find that 10 million Brits are not online and a lot more are not regular users of the Internet.

The professionalism of research panels 
Increasingly there are those of all ages that are involved in multiple online research panels and these people are most unlikely to represent the views of their peers. I know the research industry tries to guard against this but my bet is they fail.

Not understanding the range of behaviours of older adults
When research panels are being constructed they will be weighted to reflect the wider population (of course) but I don't think they take account of the wide range of behaviours and beliefs of the older age group. This means that a research panel can have the requisite number of older people but they will only represent one group of the older demographic.

The self-feeding bias caused by expert commentators
When the experts in subject, be it political or about Brands, all seem to have the same view it can become self-feeding and appear, wrongly, to be increasingly correct.

The unacceptable cultural value associated with certain views and behaviours
In the case of the UK elections the prominent explanation for the research failure is that many people were embarrassed to say how they intended to vote because it was against, in their perception, the acceptable norm. In this case it was to vote Conservative not for the other political parties. I think this also applies to other areas. For instance views about sustainability, digital, pricing will have their acceptable norms that people will feel unhappy about denying until they have the secrecy of the voting process.

So there you are, Dick Stroud's theory about what is wrong with the research business. Take note, a number of these points are exacerbated by having older respondents and where this group is disproportionally important to the outcome. Dick Stroud

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