Polling and focus groups are an important part of a comms professional’s toolkit. At the best of times, they can provide insight, help your messages land and generate excellent media coverage.
They have helped me secure front-page coverage and helped push the issues I’m working on to the position of lead national news stories on launch day. They have also helped me and my teams understand our audiences better, insights that have helped avoid putting out well-meaning but ultimately counterproductive messages.
However, there have been times when polling I’ve commissioned has not hit the mark and times when I’ve seen others go ahead with focus groups that fall short. The upside to failure is that you can learn from it and use the experiences to get closer to a formula that will deliver success almost every time. So here are some tips for success based on my experiences, and insights from research experts at YouGov and BritainThinks on how you can commission polling and focus groups that avoid the pitfalls and deliver the most comms value.
How to maximise media coverage:
- Consult a journalist on the questions you plan to ask. This helps to ensure that you have a ready-made market for your research. It also helps to avoid designing polling questions/focus group topics by committee, which has in the past, led me to ask questions with little PR value. But if you can say journo X at the Guardian thinks it’s interesting then you can easily justify dumping useless questions. This tactic also provides a useful check on the problems that come from being immersed in an issue day in, day out where you can get a lop-sided view of what is actually interesting to the outside world.
- Think in headlines. When designing questions, think of all the possible outcomes, if it is a yes/no question then what headline would you get if the majority answered yes? And if they answered no? This helps to avoid having a collection of questions that would have made major headlines if only people had answered the ‘right’ way.
- If you’re doing a focus group then get a journalist along. This helps to create buy-in. A journalist can sit behind a two-way mirror (with consent from those attending – the bigger agencies usually have this facility) or sit in on the group. Alternatively, if it is an online focus group then they can watch it live from their computer.
- Try and use the opportunity to get experts by experience otherwise known as ‘case studies’. When you commission polling, you can request that a tickbox be added so people can express whether or not they’d like to be contacted for media opportunities – you can also ask focus group participants. I’ve used this method successfully for a mental health campaign. As we know, having a ‘case study’ can make a huge difference to the amount of coverage you generate.
- If you are doing a national story about the population’s views then it’s best to have a nationally representative sample size of 1,000. However, if you want to cut the data (called crossbreaks) by a combination of features such as region, gender, age etc. then you may need a larger sample size. These issues are also why it’s important to run your release by the research company as you don’t want to be using stats that create a strong story but are statistically invalid.
- Of course, not all polls need to be representative to gain coverage. Classic examples include trade bodies or unions surveying their members e.g. doctors, nurses etc. Likewise, focus groups do not need to be representative to be interesting e.g. I worked on a focus group about assisted dying with a group of disabled people.
- Collaborating with a big name in market research can help get the attention of journalists and act as a proxy for reliability. However, I’ve also had success with smaller and cheaper companies by ensuring that the sample size and methodology are robust and it is an interesting story.
Benefits of online versus face-to-face
Polling is often done online but focus groups give you the option of either working with people in person or allowing people to participate from their computers. So how do you choose whether to go online? Lucy Bush, research director at BritainThinks, says it is best to go for online if you want to get a good geographical spread and/or a large and varied audience on a small budget.
In addition, online can work well for very sensitive topics which participants might be uncomfortable discussing in front of others. For example, we have used online focus groups to discuss the issue of race discrimination with hiring managers at a range of businesses (different sectors and sizes).
Jane Carn, director of qualitative research at YouGov, adds that online can be a great way of communicating with young people. However, she suggests opting for face-to-face when you need to test complex materials that need a moderator to guide the discussion or if there’s an opportunity to do a focus group as part of an event.
Lucy Bush from BritainThinks also recommends face-to-face when testing creatives and materials so you can ensure participants read materials thoroughly. She points out this is also a good approach for audiences that might be less confident online, such as older people.
Budgets. They are an issue for most comms people.
One way to minimise costs for focus groups is to go for online rather than face-to-face. If you want to do polling, you can team up with other organisations and put a question on an omnibus survey, rather than having to pay for a larger bespoke survey.
Jane Carn from YouGov says “online selfies” can be great for a small budget. This is where participants are provided “with a number of key questions and they then film their answers on a smartphone and share the results with the research team”.
Avoid the comms graveyard
I’ve found polling and focus groups to be an invaluable tool. The more I’ve done them, the more I’ve realised that there are tried and tested approaches that will help ensure that their outputs aren’t consigned to the graveyard of failed comms tactics.