To Find the Answer, Change the Questions

Earlier blog posts outlined issues around polls and who completes them.  There is a more fundamental question: whether polling is a tool of the television age and not of the internet age.

Polling came into its heyday with television communications.  Advertisers wanted to know about how to appeal to the aggregate of television viewers back when 12 million people generally watched Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights – a variety show with something for almost everyone and acts ranging from Elvis, to Sam Cooke, to Jim Henson’s Muppets, to Maria Callas. (As an aside, only one of them was not born in my new home state of Mississippi). 

Now, there are no variety shows and most people stream videos in line with their specific interests. Opera lovers do not need to watch Elvis and vice versa.    (

Advertising to the aggregate still has value.  Half of Americans prefer to watch rather than read the news and most of those watchers do so on television.  (  But the online only audience is growing, and has the added advantage of being able to appeal to people according to their interests rather than forcing Maria Callas on the Elvis crowd or vice versa.  

The internet is a fundamentally different medium than television.  It requires a different kind of message and message delivery.  Different research is needed to design and evaluate that.

1.  The internet is about engagement.   In his classic 1964 work, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan distinguished between “hot” media that are low in audience participation and “cool” media that are high in it.  His analogy was that a lecture would be a hot presentation and a seminar a cool one, allowing more participation.  He argued that television is a “cool” medium because it demands an audience response whereas movies are hotter. Laugh-tracks were a standard element of television shows but not of movies. But if television is, “cool,” the internet must be cold:  the medium is defined by audience response. 

Traditional polling does not generally look at what may interest people, or what they want to know, but at what they think given a limited number of pre-coded options.    It doesn’t say nearly as much about what will engage people cognitively, visually, or emotionally.

2.  The audience is different. The internet does not define audiences the way TV does.  TV buyers buy time to reach broad demographics – like women 35 plus.  Internet buyers can reach people based on interests using Google affinity audiences, custom affinity groups, lists or look-alike targeting ( ). They can explicitly include or exclude political junkies, strong partisans, and news junkies.   They can target country music listeners, classic rock aficionados, or those who respond to heavy metal – or opera. 

Polling does not look at audiences that way and so does not effectively target for internet advertising.   Your candidate – or issue or idea – cannot be different things to different people; that will produce an inauthentic mishmash and people still do talk to each other.  But people who are searching online for Kim Kardashian, World Cup Soccer, or Crafting Hacks, will not likely engage with the same content, even if they are all women 35 plus.

3.  The format(s) are different.  Online ads come in a variety of formats with different purposes and goals.  In most online ads, you do not have people for a full 30 seconds, although if you get their attention, they may stay with you far longer than the typical television ad.  The format of the ad must be tailored to its purpose, with a very broad range of choices.   And the ad will most often be seen on a screen far smaller than the average television set.  

Traditional polling may tell you what voters – at least those willing to be polled – believe distinguishes Candidate A and Candidate B to Candidate A’s advantage. Even so, that is only a first step to figuring out how that message may be expressed.   For online communications, add the need to strategically build the argument in way that engages people over the long haul. (There is no such thing as 2000 gross rating points of internet).

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I believe we are just beginning to learn how to use online communications in politics – there are more messaging options, targets, social networks, and connections than dreamed of in Marshall McLuhan’s television philosophy.

The questions and the methods for internet communications are likely situation specific.  For the next blog post, I will outline a possible internet research strategy, if you were, for example, trying to break into the top tier in the Iowa Democratic caucuses.  Keep a look out for that before the end of April.      

Author: dianefeldman1764

In December of 2018, I closed down the polling firm I operated for nearly 30 years. I continue to consult and write on research and politics, while living here in Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson is on the Pearl River and so I named the blog View from the Pearl. All views are my own, newly unfettered from the need to run a polling business or please anyone. Please click Follow to receive posts in email.

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