Pollsters hanging up their headsets

Marketplace Staff Nov 6, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: My home phone rang eight times this weekend. No actual person on the line, mind you. Autodialers. Urging me to get out and vote this way or that. A couple of weeks ago it was public opinion polls, trying to get a sense of which way the political winds were blowing. But politicians aren’t the only ones working the phones. Companies use them, too. To gauge the effectiveness of an ad campaign, maybe. Trouble is, most of us can’t be bothered to talk to them. Which has companies looking for new ways to get into your head. Sally Herships checked it out.

SALLY HERSHIPS: It’s a tough time to be a market researcher. Response rates from consumers are down to only 10 percent. That’s sounds pretty low so I thought I’d do some quick, unofficial polling of my own:

HERSHIPS: Hi, is this the Smith residence? Do you have time to answer a one-question survey?

PHONE VOICE 1: I really don’t want to.

PHONE VOICE 2: No, the lady of the household’s not here.

PHONE VOICE 3: I’m on the other line. Call me back please.

It really does seem like folks aren’t interested in being market-research guinea pigs, but market-research consultant Simon Chadwick says although there is a problem, it’s not a simple one:

SIMON CHADWICK: We’re just coming out of the era where we had telemarketing coming into people’s homes and irritating them at dinnertime. And, naturally, survey research was equated with that because we were also coming into people’s homes on the phone.

That’s part of the reason 75% of surveys are now online.

But Gian Fulgoni, chairman of the research company Comscore, says while moving to the Internet has made it easier to get answers from consumers, it’s also opened the floodgates to a new problem: a growing crop of professional respondents.

GIAN FULGONI: These are people who belong to dozens of these survey panels and are in it to specifically make some money and maybe aren’t responding accurately to the questions. And so if you have a panel that’s got too many of those people in it, you run the risk that the responses you’re getting are going to be skewed in some way.

There’s even one case of a person who took a survey 34 times to try to collect extra dough.

Mitch Eggers is with Global Market Insites, a company that actually finds people to take surveys. He’s well aware of the professional problem.

MITCH EGGERS: That person’s total benefit from, let’s say, having 30 online personalities and completing surveys would have been to collect $60 instead of $2, and yet, that person never got the incentive, and maybe 30 chances to win an iPod instead of one.

Not to mention a possibly botched survey. At worst a market research firm might have to refund the cost of the study. These typically run between $25,000 and $500,000. The cost of a failed product can run well into millions.

So pollsters are finding ways to bypass this problem. Some find consumers who let their online activity be tracked. And software is now available that helps screen out fraudsters. But Eggers says polling results will never be entirely accurate for some subjects.

EGGERS: for one of the pharmaceutical companies we did a study on erectile dysfunction. And we got responses in the U.S. that were pretty good, and that pharmaceutical company then wanted to do an international study. And it turns out that erectile disfunction doesn’t exist in Mexico, you can’t get an answer on that topic. You know? It exists in Canada, but it apparently doesn’t exist among the French-speaking Canadian. They won’t answer that question.

Despite the potential for inaccuracies most people still rely on polls.

U.S. companies and organizations spend more then $6.5 billion on polls every year. That means your opinion is worth about $2,000. That’s a lot more then a penny for your thoughts.

In New York, I’m Sally Herships for Marketplace.

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