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When it comes to political research, the answers aren’t always in the data book

By Adam Rossow

For pollsters, strategic consultants and political communication professionals, it’s officially crunch time. Everything is on the line, and ensuring messages are relevant, relatable and substantive isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.

Market research plays a critical role in helping these individuals craft and fine tune what all of us as voters take in. However, as critical as research is, many times the piece that brings it all together is left on the sidelines. For a variety of reasons, qualitative exploration with voters still takes a back seat to the reams of data provided by the countless surveys and polls that are commissioned at this time of year. So what’s at stake by eschewing quantitative research’s expressive and illuminating counterpart? We recently spoke to some pollsters who are in the thick of their respective races to get the skinny on why qualitative is so crucial when testing political ads and messages.

Intensity and depth of feeling isn’t a numbers game
In the political arena, it’s just as important to know how strongly voters feel about a message, how it truly impacts them, and what feelings it evokes, than it is to uncover whether they are simply favorable or unfavorable. Powerful, game-changing words such as “hate”, “immoral” and “disingenuous” don’t arise in survey scales; they require a qualitative component to come to the forefront. And, as we all know, messages that bring about these intense feelings rise above the clutter, and have the power to tip the scales in either direction.

Tell me what to say!
While political professionals are veteran message-makers who sometimes know just what to say, it never hurts to get some insight from the voters. In terms of initial message creation, qualitative is vital to understand the words and phrases voters are using themselves. If being relatable and relevant are two of the cornerstones of an effective message, it behooves these political communicators to use the actual words coming out of their audiences’ mouths in their messaging efforts. What’s the best way to capture specific language and understand its importance and utilization? Qualitative research.

What’s being “parroted” back?
On the back end of an ad, one of the ways communication experts decipher which phrases truly resonate with voters is by exploring which are “parroted” back – that is what are they repeating from the ad after the fact. Stickiness of words and taglines is paramount (“Change we can believe in” ring a bell?), and conversing with voters free from the confines of an open-end box is the best way to see what they gravitate towards.

Tweaking is an art form
Subtle changes to advertisements can have a major impact on how they are received. A simple word edit or a change of imagery can make the difference between what’s noise and what’s impactful. Nailing down what specific improvements to make is best achieved through back and forth dialogue. While a survey can be helpful in explaining what’s wrong and maybe shed light on what a voter would like or expect from an ad, drawing out thoughtful ideas and coming up with solutions is a task best left for qualitative.

In the end, it is our feeling, and the feeling of many of our pollster clients, that qualitative deserves more than just a small section of the political research toolbox. These sentiments are surely echoed by the voting public who continually “don’t get” the latest ad, or tune it out because it doesn’t relate to them in any way. If we as research professionals chose to give them more of a voice, it might just make for more effective, and more palatable, political ads and messages.

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One response to “When it comes to political research, the answers aren’t always in the data book

  1. Good day
    I came across your site during a search for market research topics and experts.
    As a business student I am interested in the topic of market analysis /research.
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    S. Mahabir

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