Numbers Do Matter
If the recent election results tell us anything it’s that numbers do matter, at least when it comes to public opinion. Whether one side or the other chooses to believe them, the polls proved to be extremely accurate in predicting the final outcomes. And when read carefully even early on in the campaign cycle, they provided a roadmap to public perception and pointed to the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate’s brand in what was ultimately a dynamic marketplace (remember all of the front-runners in the Republic primaries?).

Companies can learn a lot from the political world. Understanding customer perceptions about their brand and those of their competitors is essential to charting an effective market platform and delivering a winning message to core audiences. That’s why we always recommend gathering research through surveys before launching a new campaign. In our experience, clients may believe they know what their customers’ think of them, but it’s not always accurate. In fact, customers may have an outdated view of a particular brand, or not give it enough credit for strengths with new products and services. Or they may not know the company well-enough at all to respond to existing marketing campaigns and messaging.

What’s perhaps a more interesting lesson from the election is that the traditional way of surveying individuals—by calling their home phones—was the least accurate method used by pollsters, according to Nate Silver who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog for the New York Times. Instead, according to Silver, “some of the most accurate firms were those that conducted their polls online.”  This is a new twist. Traditionally pollsters relied only on reaching people on land lines in order to get a true random sample from which they could draw accurate portraits.

The problem with land lines, of course, is that fewer people have them, especially at the younger end of the age spectrum. In addition, thanks in part to caller ID, fewer individuals answer when they are called. As a result, pollsters relying only on home calls have to project very few responses to a larger population and all its different demographic varieties. Cell phone numbers are hard to get. They typically aren’t published anywhere, and individuals are even less likely to take those calls.

That leaves on-line surveys, which often target “panels” of customers with job responsibilities that map to a target customer profile. For example, for an enterprise technology company, that could be IT professionals with decision-making responsibilities at their job. These panelists often volunteer to take these types of surveys in exchange for compensation such as access to the survey results or even to gift cards. As a result, these types of panels are not as randomly selected as a statistician might prefer, and the margin of error may be higher than would be appropriate for a political poll.

That type of margin, often around five-to-six percent for sample sizes in the 150-200 range, isn’t particularly significant when determining a brand footprint in a market. We’re not trying to predict an election result, but rather just making sure that we understand perceptions and preferences of potential buyers. Using on-line panels, we can deliver useful market survey results as an early step in a campaign without breaking the bank.

One of the survey tools that our clients have found particularly effective is the use of “word clouds” to display important attributes that audiences ascribe to a brand. A word cloud simply enlarges the words used in relation to how frequently they are mentioned in the survey. Here’s an example of a word cloud that we created from a survey of soldiers asked to recall brand names of equipment or products they used while serving in combat zones:

This type of graphic allows companies to quickly assess both recall and the relative strength of that recall when compared to other relevant brands.

Market surveys can effectively remove the blindfolds and allow companies and other organizations to implement a marketing strategy that responds to the perceptions and the needs of their target audiences—and gives them a better chance of meeting their campaign goals.