Why The Unreliable Polls Of 2016 Must Awaken New Methods Of Market Research

18/01/2017 15:18 GMT | Updated 19/01/2018 10:12 GMT

What is left to say about the US election and Brexit? There seems to be a sense of fatigue now when people discuss these two events - a sense of disbelief and tiredness. However, the implications of both are so huge that we can't shy away from it and have to push ahead; not only to understand what's next, but how it all happened in the first place.

One of the main issues to arise from the US election results is the fallibility of conventional attitudinal research. Most polls conducted were adamant that Hillary was in the lead. That, despite a few setbacks and a private email scandal, she was a shoe-in for the job. But once again, much like Brexit, we were left red-faced and open-mouthed when it was finally announced that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States.

But as shock subsides and the dust settles, it's time to roll our sleeves up and interrogate how we all got it so wrong. We need to take a long, hard and serious look at why the polls were so out of tune with what was really going on.

Some say it's from the lack of willing participants and others, like John Curtice, the president of the British Polling Council, says there is a classic pattern: "those who refuse to disclose their political sympathies are more likely to vote for conservative parties".

Whichever way you look at it, pollsters are underestimating conservative voters, and conservative voters are suspicious of pollsters. What's clear, is that we need a new ways of measuring intent and sentiment, as the danger of being caught in an elite group think bubble is all too apparent.

But what's the solution?

One could assume that measuring sentiment from social media would be a better indicator of real sentiment - measuring in-the-moment honesty as a true reaction to what's happening in real time. However, as fake news stories plague the internet, some of which are no more ridiculous that the truth, social media alone outpaces itself and is arguably too inflammatory to base accurate sentiment on. What is said in hatred one minute, is simply forgotten the next.

As social media filtering creates political bubbles, online 'ranting' can often result in lost jobs and police intervention; throwing caution in those who might have previously expressed their true opinion on social networks. Social media simply can't be trusted to give a true reflection either.

Post Truth politics

As the Oxford Dictionary announces its word of the year as 'post-truth', it seems we might not actually be ready for the truth at all. In a world where words bear no relation to reality, and emotions have more sway than facts and evidence, it's clear that the public is clearly having 'expert' fatigue.

From Brexit to the US election, the main issue is lack of trust - of corporate institutions, politicians, the media and of those seemingly in the know. The public may trust Attenborough's opinion on wildlife, and Brian Cox on the universe, but when it comes to the economy and policymaking, we just aren't willing to look, or listen, to the evidence presented to us.

Stats, facts and opinion are now blurred and this is our new reality. Perhaps it's not that we need to replace polling and attitudinal research, but change the way the public views it - and those in charge of implementing it. If we're willing to vote for our favourite candidates on X-Factor, we should be willing to state who we're backing when it matters most. Polling and pollsters need a rebrand. We need to give fact based evidence and experts a makeover - focus on the product, its importance and put it into context for consumers. If it becomes relevant, people's suspicions and fear will lift and we will all be more willing to openly discuss our true feelings.

It is undeniable that most marketers - and by extension market researchers - have been focussed on developing strategies that are relevant at the broadest level possible. Even if we have long had access to data and experience that demonstrates the distinctiveness of hyperlocalities, our efforts have been focussed on the urban centres of influence and the tastemakers residing in cities like London. This is especially true for particular categories - for instance technology or alcohol brands.

But, Brexit has been a clarion call to marketers to reconsider how their missions have been built and to assess what kind of biases are built into those strategies. There are of course brands and companies that have a long history of doing extremely grounded, local work - largely in the Food & Beverage categories - but this is certainly not the standard.

In recent McCann Truth Central research, we found that when it comes to improving their overall quality of life, Britons are far more likely to trust locally owned businesses than they are to trust the government. In fact, the only institutions that fare worse are insurance companies and the media. If brands cherish trust, they really ought to begin behaving more like local businesses and less like faceless giants.

And what is true of politics, is also true of marketing

There is a lot to learn from 2016 and the 'failures' we've seen along the way - especially in predicting what's around the corner. But instead of dwelling on the past, brands and marketers should look at this as an opportunity to do things better. Instead of guessing what we think consumers want and telling them how good we are, we need to show our worth in a smarter way. Engagement comes from truly understanding who your audience is and engaging emotionally with them, and there is no better way to do this, than stop talking at them, and start listening.