Market Research: Pick of the polls

Opinion polls can engage the media and public with fun statistics, but PROs should beware the temptation to fill studies by exploiting popular culture or simple science.

From lists of favourite comedians, films and footballers to surveys on health, finances, education and politics, hardly a day passes without the media highlighting some sort of poll reflecting attitudes to daily life.

As a device for generating coverage, the PR industry's love affair with research continues, while statistics remain a favoured resource for journalists.

Indeed, at the risk of proving the point, a recent survey conducted by Weber Shandwick affiliate KRC Research found that opinion research is of interest to nearly nine out of ten journalists, while 68 per cent of journalists say they receive press releases containing opinion research on a daily basis.

Despite their popularity however, there are certain ways of getting polls wrong. Financial Times UK affairs editor Roger Blitz estimates that he receives around four survey-based press releases every week: 'The ones that are filed in the bin are those where clearly a company or organisation wants to try and create news where there is no news.'

By this, Blitz refers to the blatant plugging of corporate products or services and statistics that provide little or no insight into the subtleties of public opinion. 'I'm much more likely to read something connected to a piece of research by an academic or university that is looking to test a thesis out, or where the research tries to get behind people's thinking and slice and cut away at an issue,' he says.

In addition, his job remit means that Blitz is always more interested in studies that provide a breakdown of UK statistics by region or compare and contrast opinion at an international level.

Sample size

Certainly, according to the KRC survey, three out of ten journalists believe the most important aspect for a poll is reliable sample size, followed closely by newsworthiness and relevance.

This view is backed by other research organisations, which flag up the importance of studies being statistically robust and originating from an authoritative and objective source. 'It depends on the nature of the project, but most national press and broadcasters expect research findings to be backed by a sample size of at least 1,000 people,' says Survey Solutions MD Miles Couchman.

Most media polls continue to be based on phone or face-to-face questioning, with firms such as NOP World quoting a turnaround time of two days and a starting price of around £350 for a single question on a telephone omnibus service. However, newer technologies such as text and the internet are increasingly working their way into the mix.

Nik Harta, director of tickbox.net, the internet research arm of markettiers4DC, highlights the reliability and speed of using online polling, and its suitability for tackling sensitive issues such as personal health and finances. 'If people are interviewed over the phone, they may be tempted to rush through things or be embarrassed about answering certain questions,' he says. 'But online subscribers can complete surveys in their own time, which tends to lead to a more honest response.'

However, in terms of providing the media with relevant and newsworthy surveys, the simplest way to find out which subjects or issues are of current concern is to ask. 'At the beginning of any research project, we always ask the press "What are the areas your readers will be interested in?". That way we bring in the editorial team before we've actually done the research,' says lifestyle PR agency HCP managing director Kirk Hoatson.

This tactic helped HCP expand coverage of international motoring safety and road management exhibition Traffex from two-centimetre diary pieces in trade press to a double-page spread in The Daily Telegraph examining motorists' attitudes to congestion charging.

This point of keeping apace of journalists' thinking is picked up by Rebecca Jones, director of workplace communications agency CHA: 'It's really important to tap in to the current media agenda and ideally predict in advance how sentiment will change, so that you can ride the crest of the wave of an issue rather than when it is crashing.'

Working with clients covering potentially dry areas such as the law and human resources, Jones also highlights the value of using market research to generate human-interest stories for the media: 'We have to find creative ways of talking about things such as employment law, so it's important to cover subjects people can relate to individually.'

As a result, CHA has created survey stories around the percentage of City workers looking to quit their jobs, the 'quarter-life crisis' - 25 to 35-year-olds who feel trapped by their careers - and to coincide with Valentine's Day this year, romance at work.

Other good hooks for journalists include research that challenges conventional wisdom, studies highlighting the differences between the sexes and new slants on age-old problems.

For example, this September, to coincide with National Pregnancy Week, baby charity Tommy's picked up coverage ranging from The Times, the Daily Mirror and the women's press to Sky News by highlighting that one in five women still smoke and two out of five drink alcohol through pregnancy.

'The survey on pregnancy health was the main news hook, but we also used singer Sophie Ellis Bextor who had pre-eclampsia during pregnancy,' says Tommy's senior PR manager Ash Anand.

And in the case of the tabloids, polls offering up an excuse to run a celebrity photo usually fare well. For example, Brazen PR recently compiled a list of movie-goers' favourite film stars for client UCI Cinemas, which enabled the tabloids to feature pictures of Catherine Zeta Jones.Also this spring, to promote the release of School of Rock at UCI cinemas, the agency ran a 'What's the best ever rock song?' poll. This placed Queen's We Will Rock You at number one, which was also the soundtrack for UCI's recently signed soft-drinks supplier Pepsi's new ad campaign, featuring pop stars Britney, Beyonce and Pink.

But the volume of coverage that this and other similar surveys generate by exploiting popular culture or simple science does threaten to undermine the power of research as a media tool.

The news agenda has changed since Cadbury first commissioned its study into the mood-enhancing properties of chocolate and McVitie's science of dunking biscuits captured the imagination of the media.

The very best surveys and polls can be amusing but, above all, they should reflect genuine brand values and provide journalists and the public with insights that are truly enlightening.

TOP OF THE PR POLLS 2004

February Yours magazine found that over-50s are being driven to 'wrap rage' by hard-to-remove food packaging. Bleach-bottle tops and shrink-wrapped cheese were top of the list of older shoppers' pet hates.

Valentine's Day Human and Legal Resources revealed that two thirds of us have been seduced by someone at work. Fourteen per cent said it was a one-night stand and 17 per cent a short-lived fling.

March In a live TV vote, the BBC declared Only Fools and Horses as the UK's favourite TV sitcom, from a list of finalists championed by celebrities over a ten-week series of programmes.

March Tiscali.co.uk named Wayne Rooney as the UK's favourite Scouser, to celebrate International Scouse Day.

April At the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Professor Richard Wiseman showed that people born in the summer months are more likely to consider themselves lucky than those born in winter.

June Lloyds TSB Insurance disclosed that Britons spend £73 a month on dog grooming, gifts and treats, with 5.3 million dog owners splashing out an average of £13.76 each pampering their pooches.

Euro 2004 Fashion brand Footie Chick divulged that asking for sex or sexual attention was the most annoying thing a woman can do while the football is on TV.

October The Institute of Financial Services said that money matters confuse Britons. Top statistics included eight out of ten people not knowing what annual percentage rate (APR) meant.

October The Radio Times declared Homer Simpson as the number one fictional character that TV fans in the UK would like to see become US president.

November Mars named the Beatles 1968 hit Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da as the worst song ever, beating Paul Gascoigne's Fog on The Tyne and Meat Loaf's I'll Do Anything for Love.

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