5/10 for eight out of ten cats surveys

By Dan Pike on Thursday, 7 April 2016

Consumer surveys have taken a bit of a battering of late. The exit poll debacle at the General Election hit the polling industry’s reputation hard, while last year also saw a spate of articles bemoaning flaky “PR surveys”. This piece in Management Today highlights the train of thought among many. For instance, Radio 4's must-listen More or Less series regularly enjoys pulling to pieces the media's worst use of numbers.

Given I work in the research team in a PR and comms agency, you may be surprised to learn I don’t disagree with a lot of the flak survey work has received.

I am not among those who knock omnibus surveys for the sake of it. We have great relationships with several research houses, and work with them in a way that ensures reliable, representative sampling and strong results.  In fact, one of my career highlights is sitting down to a takeaway in front of the TV on a Friday night, only to see a survey I ran on behalf of a client appear on Channel 4’s 8 out of 10 Cats (thankfully as a talking point, rather than an easy target!)

For the right subject matter, and approached in the right way, surveys provide meaningful data for clients, and in turn, create compelling stories for the media.

My concern is that this approach is not usually the case. Too often across the PR industry, “let’s do some omnibus” is the default tactic to generate news.  Survey questions are drafted in haste, spurious analysis takes place, then the PR team will try to dig out a story (even if the figures don’t support it) creating a tidal wave of “PR surveys” in journalists’ inboxes. Given the sheer volume, several still make print on the back of the law of averages, which then gives impetus for the same approach to be used in the future.

The problem is that those surveys that are badly conceived, poorly written, and ill-thought through fail to create useful insight for clients, and tar all research that uses the technique with the same brush.

This scattergun approach also often means wasted money for clients. Rushing to a survey means PRs often overlook data that already exists on a subject, and which, more often than not, is more authoritative Instead, we look to bring together large scale data sets, from third parties to clients’ MI, based on proprietary modelling to create authoritative insight. Sometimes this approach involves tracking tens of thousands of data points and days of data crunching, but it can equally support quick, tactical pieces.

Yes, finding and analysing public data sets or third party figures will take time and resource. But we find that clients are far happier to have a reduced outlay to fund this approach, even if this is supplemented by a much smaller scale (and therefore cheaper) survey to fill any blanks, or add in sentiment elements. Ultimately, this leads to much more insightful – and robust – research. And it makes clients’ pounds go further.

Surveys can be a great resource when used sparingly and intelligently, filling in gaps in available data, providing genuinely fresh insight, or assessing sentiment to complement otherwise flavourless numbers. Unfortunately this is not par for the course for PR.

100% of Brits who wrote this article suggest that rushing to run an omnibus in the very first instance is at best unimaginative, and at worst, a waste of clients’ money.

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