As the political polling industry incorporates more digital tools into its research methodologies, it’s going to have to reckon with respondent fraud — something that researchers from outside the industry say is a growing threat.
C&E recently caught up Will Johnson, CEO of The Harris Poll, to get his take on the future of survey research and the challenges now facing the industry.
While his company is no longer doing direct political work — its pedigree is in campaigns, and Harris is currently owned by Mark Penn’s Stagwell Group. Moreover, it’s facing many of the same challenges that political pollsters are in getting accurate data for their clients in the current environment.
C&E: Is bias in survey design the reason we’ve seen public polling missing the mark in recent cycles?
Johnson: It’s less about bias and more about just sort of people being locked into the old methods. And then finally, being able to aggressively police any sort of fraudulent and inauthentic responses.
C&E: Where do you see the survey research business model going in the next five years?
Johnson: It’s all gonna be about speed and cost efficiency and delivering to your buyer in a kind of real time way an elegant dashboard. As you get more complicated, and move more high end, it’s much more like a premium consulting model than a survey research model. I think it’s less about, oh, we took this poll, and it’s more about, we have this practitioner who has a tool kit and a lot of different ways to measure for both behavioral data inputs and looking at some more traditional [inputs].
C&E: Do you see a time when the phone survey goes away?
Johnson: I don’t think the phone is going away. When you’re making sure you’re really reaching the right consumer and asking the right question [that may require] possibly even more phone research going forward, particularly when you’re talking about tough-to-reach audiences. And when you think about fraud, [phones] help to ensure that we really are measuring, one, a real person and two, that we’re getting to them with a question we’re really trying to answer.
C&E: You mentioned fraud a couple of times. What does that look like right now in survey research?
Johnson: It’s online. It’s respondents who you know are not real. This goes back to the value of the practitioner: there’s a cat and mouse game going on. The panel providers are making sure that they are capturing real people and then the fraudsters are figuring out ways to bypass those checks.
C&E: Has fraud caused researchers to miss the mark in public surveys?
Johnson: I think there may be a little of that, but I think it’s got much more to do with reaching people where they are. I think there was a general complacency in the industry, just sort of sticking to old methods rather than bias.