Marketing Viewpoint by Ruth Winett
The Problem with Pay-to-Play Political Surveys
As a market researcher and as a voter, I am bothered by mail surveys I recently received from two different political action groups. While both groups ostensibly wanted to know my position on controversial political issues, I found that the real purposes were fundraising and lead generation. Here are some things to consider before participating in a political survey or when interpreting the results of political polls.
Shadow sponsors. Who is the real sponsor of the survey? The first survey claimed in large capital letters to be a National Opinion Research Poll and stated in much smaller letters it was from U.S. English, Inc. A sentence in small print at the end of the survey stated that the sponsor was a 501(c)(4) nonprofit lobbying organization located in Pennsylvania. The organization provided a URL and a phone number, which only works in Pennsylvania.
Deceptive or unclear purpose. What are the real goals of the sponsor and of the survey? How will the sponsor use the results? The stated purpose of the same mail survey was to inform members of Congress and state legislators that the survey respondents "support English as the official language of the United States." However, U.S. English Inc. admitted by phone that the main purpose of the survey was fundraising; soliciting support for the bill before Congress was secondary.
Confusing and/or Inflammatory language. The first survey asks, "Do you believe Congress should reject efforts by radical anti-assimilation groups to abolish English-language requirements for new citizens?" The question is confusing because it includes emotional language and because it is about pressure groups and language requirements and the relationship between the two. Moreover, what is an anti-assimilation group? It is unclear whether the respondent is to weigh in on anti-assimilation groups or the language requirements or both. Here is a clearer, more neutral version. "Should Congress maintain its English-language requirements for citizens?"
Double barreled questions. The following question should be two questions. "Do you believe immigrants who come to the U.S. have an obligation to learn English and assimilate into our society?" A respondent may agree with one part of the question and not the other.
Pay-to-play. A section at the end of both surveys implies that you must make a donation to have your responses counted! And, if you don't want to contribute, they ask you to "donate" to defray survey expenses. One requests $10; the other $4.95. Presumably, the goals are to raise funds and to get you to make a small commitment to the organization and its cause. More typically, survey administrators provide participants with incentives, not invoices!
Questionable sampling techniques. Whom did the sponsors ask to participate? Was it a random sample or a narrowly defined target group? The first survey was "representing" my state. Knowing the composition of the sample is essential when you interpret the results of political polls. A survey asking just 18-34 year-olds in the South about preferences for the next President will not provide meaningful data about the outcome of the November election.
The above principles apply to most surveys. As a survey participant, you should limit access to your personal information and your opinions. As a survey designer, you should be forthright as possible about the purpose of the survey, and you should phrase questions in a clear and emotionally neutral manner. As a consumer of survey results, you should ask whether a representative sample of the target group participated in the survey and whether the sponsor has followed good survey techniques.
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