Stop listening to polls, start listening to people

focus group

Liz, June 9, 2017

So – a hung parliament. Just what the country needs at a time when we’re about to break up with our biggest trading partner.

The PM seems to have made the fatal error of actually believing what the polls say.

For years now, I’ve been encouraging our clients not to bother with focus groups. Or at least, if they really do want to have them, to take them with a hefty dose of salt.

People say what seems right at the time

Why? Because when you put direct questions to people, when you force them to express a view – perhaps through a prism they hadn’t even considered before and in terms they might not normally use – then what you get back is a “truth” which is often only what seems right to say at the time.

I’ve observed countless focus groups about all kinds of products – from ready meals through to software. Sitting behind the glass, you hear the facilitator ask a number of questions:

  • Do you think there’s enough chicken in this?
  • Do you feel this represents value for money?
  • Do you think this product is safe for your family?
  • Do you think sample A, B or C is salty enough?
  • Does the name of this product make you think of innovation?
  • Would you be proud to display this in your home?

What you get back is an enormous amount of data. Quantitative boxes ticked for optimum saltiness and adequate chicken content. Qualitative comments including things like: “Well, I’m just saying, I think it looks like sick…” (from a guy whose pre-group questionnaire reveals he eats six Pot Noodles a week).

Polls are analytical; people are not


All of this data is meaningless. Because people don’t consume products, services – or even political ideologies – in an interrogative, analytical way.

The thought process behind buying a chicken ready meal of a certain price point is not: Does this have adequate chicken content? How innovative does this product sound? Will it look nice enough on my fridge shelf?

It’s more like: I’m knackered and hungry – that picture looks nice enough. I wouldn’t be in this supermarket if I didn’t trust it to sell decent stuff… And into the shopping basket it goes.

Most people have no opinion

Even before I’d ever witnessed a focus group, I’d had plenty of experience asking people their opinion. For a decade, I worked as a reporter and feature writer – on a couple of newspapers and at the BBC.

One of the standard tools in the box of any news organisation is the vox pop. This is where a reporter goes out onto the street and asks people what they think about something – the location of a new shopping centre, whether smoking in public should be banned… or how they’re going to vote in an election.

It’s a crappy job – and one that newspapers tend to send their most junior folk out to do. And it’s crap because most people, when you ask them, have no opinion at all. “Oh, I don’t mind things how they are,” they’ll say. “Why fix things that aren’t broken?”

Of course, you can’t go back to a news editor with a whole pile of bland, so you stick at it until you find five or six people out of maybe a hundred who care enough about your question to stop and give you at least a couple of useable sentences.

And no-one is “rational”

So what you get with a vox pop is a nice page filler – but by no means a reflection of how the population as a whole feels about any given issue.

And yet, over and over, important, expensive decisions are made based on the reports that pollsters, journalists and focus group facilitators produce.

The disparity between what people tell you they believe and what they actually do is just a fact of human nature. We’re nearly all products of societies that say “logical is best”. And by logical, we mean having the ability to be dispassionate, to consider all the options, to suppress emotional responses and to make the best decision. In other words, we believe the best people are Vulcans.

Vulcan High Command: Rational, with terrible hair

But this is delusional. Human beings aren’t rational. If we were, we might have auto-destructed by now. Instead, we’re hardwired to only make decisions that are absolutely necessary for survival and autopilot everything else. We navigate life, business, politics and new chicken ready meals with our guts and heart, not our heads. And even the concept of “rationality” is now being seen as little more than rifling through the options and choosing the one that best fits your view of the world (or as behavioural economists would call it, confirmation bias).

Just listen

So what to do? Ex-Tesco CEO Terry Leahy, in his fab book, Management in 10 Words (which is much more about marketing than management) says he shunned focus groups, and instead took to sitting at the back of customer get-togethers and just listening to what people were saying.

And what I’ve heard people saying over the last few weeks is:

  • I’m sick of all this
  • I’m sick of politicians
  • Corbyn’s a muppet, May’s a monster
  • There’s no choice
  • I can’t afford to go to university
  • I’m going to be in debt forever
  • I can’t afford a house
  • I can’t afford to keep running my business
  • Cancer patients are looked after by the NHS, why not dementia patients?
  • She got rid of all the police, didn’t she?
  • They don’t understand real life

But the polls – even on Thursday morning – were predicting a sizeable victory for the Tories.

So my thoughts, for what they’re worth: Stop listening to polls. Stop framing questions that are designed to just give neat answers. Instead, just listen to what  people say when they’re off guard, on autopilot and just going about their day. Because if you don’t, you’re going to get it wrong.


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