What you don’t know (but should) about public opinion polls

We really need to stop promoting and emphasizing these polls. They can do more harm than good but creating assumptions that shouldn’t be created on such small amounts of information.

A fake pie chart form a poll

“Poll” by Sean MacEntee, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0Y 2.0

You see them in the news quite often, opinion polls on politics, the environment, etc. And people place great emphasis on these results. The problem is, we shouldn’t.

Sample size issues

What you don’t know is, the majority of these polls sample a very small amount of people.  For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2012 population statistics, there are over 42 million people in the United States between the ages of 20 and 29.  And yet, if you look at polls published regularly by the news media, their sample size is typically less than 300 people within a similar age range.

  • On December 15, 2013, USA Today (in cooperation with Pew Research) published the results of a poll: Obama struggles with Millenials. The poll only surveyed 229 millenials.
  • The article above cited a December 2013 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll as supporting evidence. That poll surveyed only 100 millenials.

So, less than 300 people are supposed to accurately represent the opinion of 42 million individuals.

The examples above do openly say their sample size and their margins of error, but my point is, we shouldn’t be placing such huge emphasis on polls with such a small sample size.

Collection methods

The other thing that always makes me very nervous about opinion polls is their collection methods. No collection method is perfect, all of them have flaws:

  • Phone polls: Typically people polling only call home phones. There is a huge population of cell-phone only homes that are left out.
  • Story-linked web polls: If someone clicks on a story and then takes a poll related to the story, they would be considered to have “high interest” in the story, which means the poll leaves out others who are “low interest.”
  • Web polls: You have to be on the web to take them. I know that’s considered very common, but there are still populations within the U.S. who are not regularly online.
  • Interception polls (such as stopping people at a mall): These polls typically end up targeting a segment of the population that has an interest in similar activities (otherwise they wouldn’t be in the same place). Some examples of this gone wrong are asking people only at a rock concert how they feel about rock music or asking consumers when they are shopping how the consumer confidence is.

Interest level

A third key factor about polls is that someone is not typically going to take the time to take them if they aren’t interested in the topic. This immediately skews your results to those in the “high interest” or “strong opinion” categories.

Think about your own habits. What if you were in the middle of something and you got a call asking you to take a poll on a subject you could care less about. Would you take it? Probably not. But if it’s something you are very passionate about, you probably will.

In sum, we really need to stop promoting and emphasizing these polls. They can do more harm than good but creating assumptions that shouldn’t be created on such small amounts of information.

For more on this, visit:

The Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective, Part 2: We No Longer Believe Evidence and Facts



I can’t write a negative review? Then no sale

Consumers can take immediate action: If a business won’t allow you to write an honest (potentially negative) review, don’t do business with them.

A man with tape over his mouth. The word "Silence" is written on the tape
“Silence” by David Pacey, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

If you haven’t heard of “gag clauses”at the consumer level, they are becoming a reality that we need to be aware of and stand up against.

Essentially, businesses are writing into their contracts and terms of service that you, as the consumer, can’t write a negative review about them.

For example (from USA Today):

John and Jen Palmer, an Oregon couple, learned about this the hard way. It started with a $20 purchase from online retailer KlearGear.com in 2008. The Palmers never got the merchandise, Jen Palmer told a Senate panel last month, and she lambasted KlearGear online.

Three years later, KlearGear demanded that the Palmers remove the review or pay $3,500 for violating a “non-disparagement” clause. When the review wasn’t removed, an unpaid $3,500 debt showed up on John Palmer’s credit report.

I definitely understand the argument of protecting businesses from false/vindictive negative reviews  but at the same time, many consumers rely on both positive and negative reviews to make better purchasing decisions.

While our legal and regulatory agencies continue to hash-out how to handle consumer “gag clauses,” we can take immediate action: If a business won’t allow you to write an honest (potentially negative) review, don’t do business with them. 

For example, I  hire professional photographers from time-to-time. I can’t imagine if one of these photographers asked me to sign a “gag clause.” I wouldn’t do business with them.

First, as someone who does look at references and online reviews for photographers, I would immediately question how good and professional they really are. I would have to assume that everyone else has also signed a “gag clause” which means I really don’t have a good understanding of how good they are.

Second, what if it goes badly? I believe heavily in writing honest reviews to inform other customers and I want to be able to warn others of a bad experience.

Third, I don’t make a habit of limiting my free speech and wouldn’t respect or trust a business that asked me to.

Sadly, this also means being more careful, as consumers, to read those pesky, long terms of service before doing business with an organization.


Millenials want straight-shooting authenticity

Whether or not they view an organization as authentic may have greater value than if they like your product, service, or benefits.

Three circles. First circle says "Branding is what you are." Second circle says "Marketing is What you do." Third circle says "Selling is what you say." The three circles intersect and where they do is the word "authenticity"
“How do you truly #influence customers?” by Walter Lim, Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

It’s no secret that Joe Biden is popular among Millenials and I’ve long-argued that the reason behind this is simple: Whether you love him or hate him, you know who he is (or think you do anyway) and that authenticity is something that the Millenials, those who grew  up in a world of questionable information and characters, are attracted to.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that the Millenials are more supporting of Donald Trump than the Republican candidate closest to them in age and political stance, Marco Rubio.

According to USA Today:

What seems to be attracting younger people so far this campaign season are not policy positions or attack ads but “softer attributes” such as leadership, character, authenticity and celebrity, said John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, which has done extensive research on the attitudes of young voters.

It helps to explain why someone from an older generation – like blunt-spoken, universally known businessman Donald Trump, 69, – often appeal to the younger set., he said.

And why Millenials tend to favor Bernie Sanders.

At the same time, Millenials don’t tend to vote, which means, popular with them or not, the current set of candidates may be better off appealing to a broader voter base, who don’t always favor blunt, straight-shooting talk.

But this may change it the future. And, this tells us a lot as marketers about how, if we are targeting to Millenials now, we may want to approach them. Whether or not they view an organization as authentic may have greater value than if they like your product, service, or benefits.

5 million U.S. households without TV. My house is one of them.

A laptop sitting on a chair hooked up with an HDMI cable to live stream content.
Bye bye expensive TV service, hello HDMI cable. Photo from flickr: tawalker


USA Today  published an article about the 5 million U.S. households without TV. I’m very proud to say that my household is one of them. After interviewing more and more college students (my target audience) without TV, I decided to try it . It was a struggle at first because I was so used to relaxing in front of the TV, but now I can’t imagine having TV service.


Some notes on the lifestyle:

– I physically HAVE a TV, but if you turn it on, nothing happens. But, I can play DVD’s on it and hook up my HDMI cable to stream anything from my computer to my TV. Some of my friends have taken it even more to the extreme by removing their TV altogether.

– I find I read a lot more now, which is great!

– I can live stream pretty much anything I could want (presidential debates, etc.). The only time it failed me was my Thanksgiving tradition of making fun of the poor people freezing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The live stream wasn’t working.

– In the rare event that I want to watch a sporting event live, I go somewhere and watch it, which is no different from what I was doing before because I wouldn’t pay for ESPN.

– It doesn’t limit my capability to keep up with advertising trends since so much is also online now.  If someone mentions a particular commercial to me, I’ll bring it up on YouTube. If I see an ad campaign that intrigues me, I’ll go online to check-out their broadcast ads.

– My only costs now are my internet service and my $8 something a month for Netflix. I’ve heard rumors that cable companies are trying to figure out how to charge people like me for watching so much online, but I haven’t seen anything concrete yet other than faster speeds costing more.

– As the article points out, I’ve often thought about what I’ll do when I have kids. Although, I had two four-year olds running around my apartment this weekend and I found, in the absence of any toys, that Netflix’s Batman cartoons worked really well to keep them busy for a while.