Election night. The one time every 5 or so years that your friends and family begin to have some inkling of what it is you do for a living.
With almost every poll aligning on the evening before, the UK expected a dead heat in the vote share and around 274 seats for the Conservatives, versus 271 for Labour. But 24 hours later, an exit poll and the results themselves show that the Conservatives have returned 331 to Labour’s 232. An astonishing departure from the previous data! Or was it?
The main thing to say is that the polls were almost certainly not wrong. So let’s focus on whether they asked the right question. Polls asked how people would vote, while the final surprise exit poll and voting itself recorded what they actually had voted. Perhaps people weren’t lying – perhaps they just couldn’t accurately predict their own behavior.
For me, the parallels with consumer research are clear.
We don’t always know why we do what we do, or what we’re going to do in future. Yet much research insists on asking people to explain just that – when consumers may not fully understand all the key moments along the way themselves. Marketers and researchers create concepts based on a world where consumers are seen as rational beings, with perfect self-awareness:
“How likely are you to buy product X after seeing this advert?”.
I don’t know about you, but I currently don’t know how likely I am to buy a bike part I’ve been thinking about for 4 months! Let alone something random I fleetingly see an advert or new pack design for the first time.
If we know this about our own self-awareness, why would we expect that mythical other, ‘the consumer’, to know any better?
The shock difference in the election polls and actual voting behavior is not evidence that people lied. It’s evidence that when we design surveys, we should think about how we would answer them, and indeed whether we could.
The job of insight professionals is to propose ways we can implicitly predict behavior; to understand consumers with the depth that means we can identify likely outcomes because we know them so well, in the same way that lifelong friends can usually predict each other’s behavior with a high success rate.
If there’s one thing that research can learn from politics, it’s that ambition can get your voice heard. The difference for research will be that when we do say something, it might actually be based on some evidence…