From voting intentions to our preferred holiday destinations, barely a day goes by without a survey revealing our choices, habits and dreams, giving us a snapshot of modern trends.
For those companies or individuals who commission market research, the results can be crucial. The politician who ignores voter fears could be staring at electoral defeat; for the company needing to spot future markets, the survey can be an essential tool.
And it is a booming industry. According to the British Market Research Association, which boasts 170 members in the UK, the sector was worth £1.2bn last year.
While market research is used regularly for commercial purposes, the surveys it produces are regarded as a useful tool in the PR armoury.
BT, for example, frequently uses research to gauge customer demand and a press spokesperson explains that the company employs outside agencies and its own research material to generate publicity. Tesco, too, polls its customers every week. 'While most of it is confidential, if we think it's interesting or newsworthy, we send it out (to the media),' says a spokesperson.
For many companies that commission it, market research offers a comparatively cheap and quirky PR fix. NOP World, for example, helps generate three to five pieces of media coverage each day. Its Omnibus division charges £350 for a yes/no survey. More detailed surveys cost between £500 and £600 per question.
Elsewhere, according to MORI head of corporate and consumer research Greg Smith, costs range from £1,000 to tens of thousands, depending on size of sample and duration.
But while surveys may appear to be the quick and easy answer to getting a client coverage, it raises the question of how much they meet journalists' needs.
The Independent social affairs correspondent Maxine Frith reveals she receives three or four surveys a day: 'You can quickly tell whether a survey is based on a poll of office colleagues or is just a crass plug for a product.'
What does work, however, is interesting information. Frith says PROs should use a reputable polling firm with a good-sized number of respondents to add weight to a story.
Lists of best movies, records or TV programmes can work. Elsewhere, geographical surveys also create interest, as do time-related ones. Simon Worthington at news agency Specialist News was recently sent a survey saying 1976 was one of the best years to live in, a survey, he says, that created interest among the nationals.
But careful selection is needed if the findings are being used to steer advice being provided from clients. 'The ones that work best always involve a respected, independent third party, so it's useful to have a bank of academics and other credible commentators who can be drawn on from time to time,' advises Porter Novelli deputy managing director Teresa-Anne Dunleavy.
The ideal survey
Dunleavy's views are echoed by Hill & Knowlton new business managing director Richard Millar. He believes that while surveys are useful, they can fall into the trap of being overused.
'They need to have credibility that can be obtained by using reputable research firms and a decent-sized sample,' he says. 'Ideally, you want to make it a regular survey that people know and understand, like Amex's business travel index, which is widely respected.'
Getting reflective answers from a good-sized database remains key to providing the media with relevant information. Most surveys continue to be based on phone or face-to-face questioning, but recently research firms have started to use internet polling and even, to a limited extent, text.
Political polling firm YouGov is among the pioneers of internet research, although other firms are exploiting the medium. Howard Kosky, MD of Markettiers4DC, which runs Tickbox.net, says the internet is the way forward for market research.
Tickbox.net, for example, has been operating for three years and has 30,000 people registered who are willing to undertake polling.
'Ninety per cent of interviews are done online, which enables us to act quite quickly,' Kosky explains. 'We use a minimum of 1,000 people and can tap into existing databases to get to the right target area.'
There is a school of thought that regards internet polling as unrepresentative, but this is not an opinion Kosky shares, believing the opposite to be true. As people are often at home and doing them in their own time, he says, they are more likely to answer more truthfully because there is no peer pressure.
Probably one of the most innovative methods of polling has been by text.
MORI, one of the country's largest polling firms, has carried out two such polls for BBC's Watchdog, using a voluntary database of 4,000, covering the MMR debate and treatment by high street banks. However, this method is still in its infancy.
PROs can rest assured that many of the UK polling firms they commission are rigorous with accuracy. Smith says that although less than five per cent of the research MORI carries out is actually released to the media, results can offer an attractive method of publicity. 'And we check press releases and publicity to ensure accuracy,' he says.
The stronger the base of respondents, the more likely a survey is to be picked up by the media. Developments in polling methods such as the internet and texting mean the people who answer the questions do so because they want to, and avoids the potential pitfall of people hanging up the telephone.
While surveying a target audience is a key part of the PR programme, if you want media pick-up the message is clear: be selective and be creative.
TOP FIVE POLLING FIRMS - WHAT'S ON OFFER
Offers: Analysis and collection of research data, some polling and
Customers: BBC, Archant, Northcliffe
UK turnover 2003: £159m
Offers: Market research, phone, face-to-face and internet polls
UK turnover 2003: £76m
Offers: Brand, advertising, loyalty and media research, some polling
Customers: Procter & Gamble, Rajar and APEX
UK turnover 2003: £47m
Offers: Market research, phone and face-to-face polling, limited
internet and text polling
Customers: BBC, Nokia, Consumers' Association
UK turnover 2003: £39m
Offers: Analysis of consumer trends principally through tracking
cash-till buys, some surveys
Customers: Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Unilever
UK turnover 2003: £34m
Top five market reserach companies from British Market Research
Association 2003 league tables.