Polls are constantly in the news these days. You can rarely scan the day’s headlines without finding a reference to the President’s approval rating, or the results of some other news poll about a current issue. And, of course, sports and entertainment websites are littered with unscientific reader polls, that usually consist of a single question about which celebrity wore the best dress at the awards ceremony or which football team is going to win that weekend.
As a market researcher, people I know will sometimes see such a poll and ask me, “Is this the kind of thing you do at your job?” And my answer is, “Well, yes and no.” Here at RMS we do a great deal of survey research, but not much in the way of polls strictly speaking. The two forms of research are quite similar in many ways, but there are a few important distinctions. These include the following:
1) A poll is usually much briefer and more focused than a survey. As mentioned above, polls can sometimes consist of a single question. Surveys are typically longer and can cover a broader range of material.
2) Like a survey, polling data can be collected via telephone, online, on paper or even in person. But polling data collection normally takes place in a very brief window of time. The political polls that get reported during election season typically involve 800 to 1,000 completes collected over a three-day (or less) period. This is necessary due to the constantly shifting nature of public opinion on some issues. Survey data collection is much more deliberate – taking weeks or sometimes even months.
3) Polls normally employ a simpler instrument design than surveys. Because of the quick nature of polling research, the questions tend to be very straightforward, “Yes/No”, “A or B” type choices that can be rapidly administered, answered and analyzed. Surveys offer the research more flexibility to use techniques such as rating scales, rankings, open-ended questions, and so forth.
4) Because of all the points mentioned above, the analysis and reporting for a survey is usually more involved and nuanced than that for a poll. The relevant information from most polls can be summarized in a news release or a TV sound bite, whereas survey projects can and often do require reports of 100 pages or more to fully explore all the findings.
All that said, polls and surveys are more alike than they are different. Both require sound methodology and design to be meaningful, and even the simplest poll can require thoughtful analysis to determine exactly what it does (and does not) tell us. And ultimately, both techniques are valuable tools to organizations that want to learn more about their customers, voters, readers, viewers, etc.
If you are interested in using a poll or a survey to provide answers about specific topics or issues, contact Sandy Baker, Director of Business Development at Research & Marketing Strategies (RMS) in Syracuse NY. She can be reached at SandyB@RMSresults.com or by calling 315-635-9802.