Jul 08
New "Robocalls" Rule Threaten Entire Market Research and Polling Industry


Gathering data can prove time consuming and costly, especially when marketing surveys employ one-on-one survey phone calls.

For years researchers have conducted surveys with the help of autodial technology as well as Interactive Voice Response technology, balancing the time and cost-effectiveness of gathering vital feedback with lower labor costs. Even a well-designed IVR project using "robocalls" can help provide real, marketable intelligence for companies, people, and campaigns on a tight budget.

But the future of IVR and autodial technology, used for decades, is now in question. 

And that's one of the biggest stumbling blocks to statistically reliable market research. Call it the cell phone dilemma. By law, the Federal Communications Commission requires that robocalls and autodialed calls require a consumer's permission to be made to a wireless phone.  

There's a big difference between IVR calls from professional, ethical, reliable researchers, and telemarketers trying to make a fast buck. Earlier this year, the Marketing Research Association, one of the top such professional groups in the U.S., called on the FCC to change their rules so marketers could contact people via cell phone. They released a study that backed up their reasoning.

The question will loom larger over the coming year as the 2016 national election ramps up. For decades, polling data used by major media corporations as well as campaigns, which has also influenced public perception, reaction and voting in elections, has relied on practices that include IVR and autodial technology. With at least 40 percent of American households not owning a landline anymore, the strict regulations about who can call or text cell phones will significantly impact the statistical reliability of ANY survey.

And it looks like the federal government is tightening things up, according to new rules adopted just a few weeks ago. (Note the recent judgment against Time Warner Cable for making over 150 calls to the same woman with the incorrect telephone number.) Phone carriers will be able to stop calls, which makes it easier for people to opt-out of all mass calls -- even those polling calls they may not mind.

On the other hand, Politico article reported that "[a] few pollsters predicted that if the new regulations are wide-ranging enough to complicate existing campaign practices like robocalls and polling, politicians will find a way to scuttle them before they are adopted."

The recent polls that proved so inaccurate in the recent U.K. elections that we recently wrote about may not be an aberration. They could be a harbinger -- or at least, a warning -- for the U.S. in 2016. ​

Jun 01
How the UK Pollsters Got It So Wrong: A Reality Check

No one expected a landslide. 15710568_xxl.jpg

Political polling for the UK elections held in early May predicted a virtual dead heat right up until the polls opened.

And then everything went sideways. The polls were wrong – significantly wrong. The conservative Tories won far more parliamentary nods than anyone thought possible, taking 26 seats from the Liberal Democrats, more than double the number predicted.

The handwringing has begun, and the government opened an investigation into why the polls went off the rails, and how.

Already experts have posited some suggestions as to what went wrong.

For one, voter turned was "significantly lower" than predictions had pegged, which also means polls included the opinions of a lot of people who didn't bother to actually vote. That likely skewed some numbers.

But it's not just about following voter intention. While certainly not every poll taken on behalf of research marketing has such major national -- and international – implications as a election polling in a major Western nation, the lessons emerging from England already are good reminders of what can go wrong with polling on any scale.


Sometimes people lie. 

Or, to use the British-ism, sometimes they "tell porkies." Maybe they feared looking bad, or feared being judged for voting against liberal policies despite their true beliefs, as if conservative isn't cool despite so many deciding to vote that way. Maybe it was subconscious. Maybe they felt awkward responding to a person's query instead of something more online and anonymous. The statistician behind NCPolitics, a UK-based blog, offers some evidence that these psychological factors may have come into play.

Questions matter. 

Fivethirtyeight.com discovered that a UK polling agency had queried people about their preferences two ways -- once by asking which party they planned to vote for, and another asking a longer, more specific question about who they would vote for considering the needs of their own constituency. Many predictive agencies ran with the results from the second question, but it turns out the first one more closely mirrored reality. This one's a lesson that clearly can apply to both sides of The Pond.

Timing matters. 

If polls were conducted during the workday when many people weren't home, and conservative voters are more likely to hold traditional office jobs so they wouldn't be home during the workday --  it's easy to see a potential disconnect there, notes Simon James, a global analytics lead. Think of America's changing economy, with more contract workers, less predictable shift assignments, and more freelancers, and the potential here for havoc on polling timing could grow large.

Another takeaway for us all: research isn't perfect. We have a lot of powerful polling tools, and we constantly update our processes based on past experience. But it's good to remember that while professional research marketing can provide a huge boost to everything from business to politics, it's not infallible.

Even the best research marketers know that sometimes, they get it wrong.

The key is understanding where those mistakes occurred, being professional enough to admit your own missteps, and learning the lessons of the past so they don't repeat. 

Jan 19
Spotting Bad Data

​There have been several well-written pieces on the Internet recently that have critically reviewed public polling data.​​ The infographic below from Compound Interest​ showed up in my personal Facebook newsfeed, and I felt that it also represents a "A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Polling Data" that I would share it on our blog. Control groups are not as relevant, however there are other good ways to control for sampling and response bias, that good researchers have an obligation to use whenever feasible. 


Nov 30
Should Employee Engagement Surveys Be Used in Performance Evaluations?

​"Senior managers soon may have more to fret about when it's time to discuss their performance with the boss: Are they engaging employees and creating inclusive work environments?

Agencies will evaluate Senior Executive Service members and other managers on those soft skills, according to a draft, obtained by Federal News Radio, of a memo to agency leaders from the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management and the Presidential Personnel Office.​"

via Federal News Radio​.

While it's laudable to encourage managers to improve their subordinates' engagement, surveys are not always an effective tool when performance evaluations, and potentially compensation, are tied to them. 

Risks of small sample sizes. While the whole of government represents a very large sample, individual managerial groups have the potential to be very small. There are several dangers for relying on small samples. The first is that a single respondent can skew the aggregate responses. The chart below shows the relative impact of one respondent on a small sample size compared to a larger sample size.

Likert Scale
​1 (Negative)
​5 (Positive)
​% saying 5

Surveys of very small groups also have a lower likelihood that anonymity can be preserved. In the example above, it is unlikely that a manager of a group of 5, 10, or even 20, would not know who is selecting a 1 on a question. Qualitative questions, which are important for providing better context for question interpretation, are even more likely to risk exposing anonymity. Concerned employees who feel they may be at risk of not remaining anonymous are less likely to answer honestly in future surveys or they may skip participation altogether rather than risk potential retaliation.

Inconsistently interpreted questions. Employee engagement questions, while often predictable, but like other likert scale questions, can be open to interpretation from respondent to respondent. We know that the difference between 100 pounds and 101 pounds, is exactly one pound. And that one pound is the same from person to person. However, the perceived difference between 4 and 5 on a 5 point scale which represent feelings, are simply not the same. While it only looks like one point, that one point may mean almost nothing to one person and everything to the next person. Add a small sample size to this issue, and the scale variations could be significantly exacerbated.

Survey frequency. An annual survey, while a good start for a consistent tracking, may not be frequent enough to smooth out outliers, while monthly or quarterly could be too frequent depending on the population and create unnecessary noise in the data. 

Outside factors. Government employees, like others, could find their engagement responses impacted by conditions outside their management's control. For example, it may be a challenge for federal middle management to improve overall employee engagement when they can't control when Congress will pass a budget or if the government will be shut down again.

From the perspective of this market researcher, surveys can be used as part of a larger evaluation toolkit, if these various factors can be accounted for and put in context. If not, then the entire exercise is at risk of failing.

Nov 07
Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Marketing Efforts

​​​​Smartphones seem ubiquitous today, with everyone, it seems, using devices that were considering the realm of science fiction just a few years ago. Businesses are trying to figure out wha​t this game-changing technology means, from phone providers battling over market supremacy to software companies creating the next big apps to retailers trying to connect with customers in new ways. 

The latter is where the new trends impact market research the most. How can these new tools help researchers better understand the needs and desires of consumers and clients? That's a discussion already happening throughout the connected world. IMG_2322.jpg

According to a Pew Internet study released in mid-September:

  • 91 percent of U.S. adults have a cell phone
  • 56 percent have a smartphone
  • 35 percent (16 and older) own a tablet

Smartphone users are most likely to be under 50, with a college degree, live in an urban or suburban area (not rural) and make more than $50,000 a year.

​​Marketers are still trying to grasp how customers use these devices. Like charts? Here's a bevy of them trying to show exactly how users interact with their devices.

The author looks not only at the growth of smartphones, but how people are using them overall — taking photos, and increasingly reading books — and how they're using them when they shop. Searches occur most often in the late afternoon and evenings. Most often searched: things to do and news to read. Almost half of searches are "goal oriented," in search of answers to help the user make a decision. And they’re local.

What does this mean for researchers? Large firms can track big data on exactly who does what when on their site — what people look for and buy, what their patterns are. But does that gauge satisfaction? And what if you don't have Amazon's billions to track comments, actions and sales? Some users balk at the surfeit of tracking online. But as one firm discovered, other users embrace it.

One firm, Placed, lets Web site developers learn where users were when they checked certain sites. That includes where they were geographically, but also where they were likely to go — if a person visited Sears.com, where they more or less likely to also visit JC Penny's site?

The data tracking doesn't have to be high-tech, either. Knowing the general smartphone user statistics can help market researchers who want to target similar users. Ask smartphone users to log on to a survey for upper-middle-class educated professions, for example, and you've likely got your demo nailed. Or think smaller — are your surveys designed to work with the smaller screens, and the shorter attention spans, of smartphone users?

And finally, this isn't just a U.S. trend — it's international. But smartphone users do differ from nation to nation. In Asia, for example, they might skip ever owning a desktop in favor of Internet-capable phones, and that skews the owner statistics compared to the U.S. (The discussion in the comment section of this post is especially interesting). Of course, that begs the question — will the international model eventually become the norm everywhere? Or will the U.S. continue to blaze it's own trail?

Let us know what you think — how have smartphones changed your marketing and research approach? What are your predictions for how it will do so in the future?​

Oct 02
Search Yourself: How Google is Good for Business

September marked the 15th anniversary of Google — doesn't take long to take over the world anymore, does it? In honor of that auspicious anniversary, the Pew Research Center released data on personal searches. Today, a majority of us — 56 percent — Google ourselves, compared to less than 25 percent in 2001. 

According to Pew, younger folks are far more likely to Google themselves than those approaching their AARP membership. That may not be surprising, but the real question the post doesn't answer is — how many business owners or consultants Google themselves? Because if those numbers aren't high, well, they should be. 

Love Google or loathe it, the search engine juggernaut is where many potential customers or clients turn to find goods or services. By working with Google, a business can boost it's profile on the search page, and boost the chances of snagging some of that search business. A small effort goes a long way here, and it doesn't have to cost anything. The initial basic moves are free, but they can have a big impact on your bottom line. 

Four tips: 

*Create a Google+ page. This helps people find you. The more complete your profile, the better chance you'll have of standing out in searches. If you've never tried this before, Google will ask you to "claim" your business page by verifying some basic info, such as your business address. Add a photo, and other details, and when someone searches for terms that pull up your firm on Google, they will likely see highlighted information about your page as well — a bonus helping boost your work above others who didn't claim their sites. These can also show on Google Maps. Google has an in-house page that has a pretty solid, easy-to-follow walkthrough. http://www.google.com/services/

*Set up alerts. Who has time to search the Web every day just to track yourself? Set up an alert to email you any mentions of yourself or your firm. This will allow you to flag any negative reviews or praise. That will also help you share your successes: with so many online articles and posts including social media buttons, it's easy to note the write-ups across your social media. Being on top of alerts meaning flagging potentially problematic issues before they explode, and bragging about things going right — you could potentially see good news and share it across your professional networks in no more than five minutes, at most. Either way, you'll have a finger on the pulse of what's being said about your firm. 

*Apply for a badge. With so many searches for local businesses, Google wants to award stellar proprietors with a badge of approval. There's an application process, but doing so means you can post the badge on your site, alerting to people to the fact that you've been vetted. And as with everything Google, it can boost your searchability as well. http://smallbusiness.foxbusiness.com/technology-web/2013/09/25/growing-your-business-google-tips-for-business-growth/

*Check keywords. Keywords are the words people type into Google search to find Web sites. If you track the common words that pertain to your business, you can then add those words to your site in order to increase the likelihood that some of those searchers will find you — in other words, boosting your search presence. How do you find those keywords? You can look for free. Sign up for Google Adsense — this is how Google handles ads, but you don't have to pay just to sign up. The free part of Adsense allows you to check out the words that users search for most often on Google. A blog for the online accounting service Freshbooks has pretty easy-to-follow directions. It's tricky, in that Google tries to find — and penalize — sites that stack the keywords, especially those that forsake basic English usage to do so. But it's not hard to add an extra phrase here or there, on a page or two or three, that could maybe result in a extra few sales or clients. 

Do you Google yourself, or have you claimed your business? Has it helped? Tell us your stories. ​

Aug 27
How Do You Learn? - Five Things You Can Do in Your Business

Education doesn’t come cheap. Business owners have limited budgets. Employees may balk at the cost of continuing education. And yet, having knowledgeable employees who keep up with the latest industry trends benefits everyone’s bottom line. . Small businesses can’t afford to have their employees fall behind the cutting-edge curve.

Look beyond traditional classrooms, and you can help your employees – and your business.

Here are five free (well, four free, and one very low cost) ways to keep educating employees without breaking anyone’s budget:

Find grants. Local community colleges sometimes offer deals to small businesses and their employees. Google can be your friend here. A 60-second search revealed a training program for small businesses at Baton Rouge Community College.


State and federal grants could help as well. A Wall Street Journal How-To lists a few places to start looking.  http://guides.wsj.com/small-business/funding/how-to-get-government-grants-for-training/

Brown bag lunches. Brown bags can be monthly gatherings for office-wide informational meetings, or guest speakers can make presentations or lead discussions.  Local business leaders may do so free of charge in exchange for the chance to share their knowledge, grow their potential client-base, or just snag a free soda (if you provide) and a change of scenery. Brown Bags are easy to set up and can provide a nice change of pace in the workweek. http://www.kstoolkit.org/Brown+Bag+lunches

Start a mentoring program. The program can be formal, surveying mentees on their interests and matching them to appropriate senior staff. Or it can be informal, simply setting up some time for younger staff to meet occasionally with seasoned veterans in an open exchange of ideas.


Shift the shifts. Be flexible. Let employees take some flextime if there’s a lecture or professional event, or even a paid class they want to take. Don’t dock their pay or charge vacation time, just let them go – they’ll learn, and they’ll recharge, and you will profit too.  http://www.business.com/blog/educating-employees-during-their-time-with-you/

Pay some dues. Okay, so it’s not free. But it’s often not expensive. Some professional organizations charge as little as $50 to join. Many offer deep member discounts on conferences, as well as free or low-cost (think $10 an event) educational events. Businesses can sometimes write off dues on taxes, and employees often appreciate the membership as a token of good faith from their boss.

Tell us – how do you learn?​

Jul 30
Taking Research In-House

I recently had the opportunity to serve on a panel for the American Marketing Association-DC Chapter’s Market Research SIG and discuss emerging trends in the industry. It was a very engaging event, and one question that came up, I thought deserved a blog post: when should companies bring research in-house rather than using an external vendor. 


Certainly as one of those external vendors, the natural reaction is to say, “Never, you should always hire a firm”, but there are certainly occasions when research can be conducted effectively in-house. Companies who have internal experts who can design an effective, unbiased study, certainly can conduct quite a few different kinds of studies internally without the help of a firm. And some research projects just need a quick and dirty read, and using a simple online survey tool is fine.

Despite all of this, certain stakeholders will require independent research. If the research is designed to provide data for financial analysts or other similar stakeholders, the research needs to be provided by a third-party. If the research objective is to determine the feasibility of a new product or service, independent research is best to provide a voice outside the echo chamber.

Ultimately, though, the real test is not functional at all—but whether or not the culture internally can 300px-Angry_Talk_(Comic_Style).svgsustain objectivity in the research. It’s easy to lie with statistics by cherry-picking results. If research is to be used to determine compensation, or compensation increases, it is almost impossible to keep it unbiased. Similarly, in a corporate environment that doesn’t take bad news well, conducting research internally might provide nothing but ulcers for the researchers tasked with the job.

At the end of the day, before making any decisions about how research should be conducted, it’s important to be realistic with the objectives as well as to understand the perspectives of the stakeholders. ​

Jul 19
Are You Socially Prepared?

Our writer/social media guru, Anne Miller, is a big proponent of continuing education when it comes to Social Media. The landscape changes so quickly. This summer, she’s taking MediaBistro’s Social Media Boot Camp to get up to speed on the latest trends that are, well, trending online. @mediabistroEDU #SMMBootCamp 

A few highlights from just some of the lecturers:

Different channels, different roles: Summer Krecke, @SK_AllTheWay, at Digital Brand Architects, parsed social media channels. Her line: “Act like a brand, think like a magazine.” Twitter is a table of contents, Facebook the “front of book” – those news and feature tidbits in a magazine before you get to the meaty feature stories. Pinterest, Vine and a blog are the features, and the company Website directions for how to buy.

Check out The Conversation Prism's website for a visual map of the current social media landscape.

Metrics to Measure: Danielle Brigida, @starfocus, handles social media analytics for the National Wildlife Federation. Market researchers know it’s not just numbers, but the right numbers, that lead to results. Most social media programs offer statistics. How can you make the best use of them? Track how people use your social media sites, and then focus on what’s important to your business. Do you get the most traffic in the morning or at night? Does your Facebook skew female but your Twitter male? Decide what’s most important to you, in terms of audiences to reach, and then tailor content accordingly.

Generate buzz: Lisa Raphael, @katieshow, of the Katie Show. Before Katie Couric’s solo show took off, Raphael engaged social media to create buzz around the show – and continues to help built a community around the daily talk fest. Maybe your business doesn’t have a national network platform, but social media can help any firm give clients a backstage pass into their inner-workings, like Raphael does for Couric, in order to build excitement, trust and a community. She handles basic customer-service requests (“how do I get tickets?”) even as she also communicates with A-list celebrities. No level of engagement seems too small, and that makes her level of audience engagement super rich.

Focus on a purpose: Ella Chick, @ellapchick, until recently handled social media for Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN. She had a list of takeaways, including:

  • Post with purpose
  • Focus on visuals
  • Be an early adapter
  • Find a social media management system that works for you (TweetDeck and HootSuite are popular) and helps streamline your posts and strategy

Craft your voice: Mandy Gresh, @mjgresh, discussed creating a unified voice to give your social media channels a personality. Be conversational and authentic, and have fun. Include photos, and share others’. And include incentives. Recent studies show that the number one reason people subscribe to business social media feeds is for the contests and perks. So, reward them. 

Use Google+ To Boost Your SEO: Monica Morse from Google discussed improving Google profiles for small businesses. While Google offers paid advertising options, their free services can go far in boosting business engagement in search, she said. Business owners should take charge of their local places page and upgrade to a (free) Google+ page. The Google+ page automatically pulls in social media activity, which in turn shows – and boosts engagement – in public searches. Add social media buttons to your Web site to make it easy for clients and customers to engage. Finally, she suggests creating a list of influential experts in your field, and follow them. You will learn from them, and hopefully can engage them in a way that spreads your business’s message.

If you found this post helpful, please post and share – this month Candice Bennett & Associates is competing in The Business Journals' Social Madness competition in the Small Category. If the company wins, The Business Journals will donate $10,000 to the charity of their choice, the Junior League of Northern VirginiaClick here to vote daily!

Social jlnv cba

Jun 11
Branding in the Internet age - The Case of the Cheerios Ad

​​Cheerios, a family-friendly brand usually more wholesome than controversial, sparked a national debate over family, race, and advertising this spring. 

An advertisement featuring an earnest mom, a concerned kid, and a confused dad might seem pretty inoffensive. But the dad was black, the mom was white, and the kid was biracial -- and that made all the difference.

The company posted the ad on YouTube, where racists disparaged the clip so badly that cereal executives made the rare move of asking the video site to turn off the comments section. Haters lambasted the clip for showing a mixed marriage, in ways that other ads -- with spouses who are both black or Hispanic or white -- never suffered. 

For days, Cheerios executives remained mum as tempers flared. Writers noted that other commercials featured mixed-race couples -- but not also a mixed-race child. Did that make the difference?

Meanwhile others agreed that the Cheerios ad is a big deal -- in a good way. One biracial woman, writing on Jezebel, says:

"This commercial is a huge step for interracial families like mine who want to be seen in public together and maybe eat some heart-healthy snacks. But it also validates the existence of biracial and multiracial people.... Hopefully this commercial will lead to even more positive representations of not just interracial families, but all kinds of non-traditional families. To Cheerios, I give you one internet high-five, for doing your part to normalize families like mine and people like me. Increased visibility of our differences leads to things like “acceptance” and “disrupting the status quo" ..." 

Many may have supported the ad, but not felt so inspired that they had to shout about it. It is, after all, just a 30-second clip about breakfast food. People with a strong opinion are often a vocal minority, not the majority. Those with more moderate or supportive opinions on are less likely to comment – the “silent majority” versus the “vocal minority.” And in the past, a complaint could be a passing comment or a letter to the editor that a newspaper may never publish. But amplified by the internet and social media, a single comment can ricochet across networks and gain thousands of readers in minutes. 

And so this Cheerios ad exemplifies today’s challenges for businesses and their brands.

For Cheerios, the question becomes -- is all press good press? What responsibility does a company have toward the mean-spirited or racist people creating the hubbub, who want the ad removed? How much should the potential for online criticism drive decision-making? If everyone's a critic, who do you listen to? What is the balance between meeting the needs of a changing clientele, while not angering more conservative voices? Do anonymous Internet posters matter, especially when the protests are insulting and, in this case, racist? 

The managing director of a major branding firm, Allen Adamson, told the Associated Press:

"Advertisers for many years always took the safe route, which was to try to ruffle no feathers and in doing so became less and less authentic and real… To succeed today, big brands like Cheerios need to be in touch with what's authentic and true about American families."

He continues: "The traditional approach depicting the old 'Leave it to Beaver' family, while offending no one, is not very realistic,”

Not when couples who blend race and/or religion grew from 7 to 10 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to AP's Census data.

The question of popularity is no small one for a company that the marketing research firm YouGov included in the “Most Popular Brands of the Year” for 2012. According to AdWeek, Cheerios ranked third, out of all U.S. firms, higher than Google, Lowe’s and Kindle. 

Ultimately, the hubbub may have done exactly what the detractors didn't want -- gained more traction for a product then an advertisement would have ever done, sans controversy. Cheerios executives finally came out in support of their ad, refusing to pull it. They received positive press from almost every major media outlet, and many small ones. And so perhaps the lesson is – brand-conscious markets shouldn’t create controversy, but if they do, make sure it goes viral.

What do you think of the ad? How can businesses walk that line between addressing the changing needs of a changing populace, and not angering others? Is this a unique, one-time problem, or something that brands and businesses wrestle with regularly? What would you have done?​​

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