How to Spend Money on Surveys that Don’t Get Results Part 1

No, that’s not a typo. Although many organizations have the best intentions when it comes to conducting influence campaign research, I’ve seen some rival the “burn rate” of a circa 2000 internet start-up company without persuading their audiences. That results in wasted resources and a credibility hit for the government relations professionals at the scene of the crime.

On a somewhat related note, it reminds me of a comment (and I’m not making this up) at a recent conference where someone who was the victim of an “influence in a box” product pushed at them by an outside vendor, exclaimed: “We spent $400,000.00 (again, unfortunately not a typo) on a grassroots influence campaign and all we got was a lousy web site and 32 Facebook friends.”

So how does this relate to government relations professionals? Well, on the bright side, it’s great to do research before you attempt to influence your audience. On the dark side, just asking an association member or employee “why” they do or don’t agree with your position is the worst way to get the answer that will help you sway them in the future.

An example was brought to my attention by a Harris Poll that asked respondents to rank how interesting certain advertisements are, and how influential they are. The bottom line is that most respondents stated that ads didn’t influence them.

This prompted an emergency call to my colleague Dr. Kelton Rhoads. Kelton always, without fail, tells his workshop participants that human beings are notoriously clueless when it comes to knowing why they are or are not persuaded about an idea or product. He goes on to tell of an annual experiment with his USC students which nicely makes his point. So, this principle of influence is burned into my brain, and I wanted to get his take on the Harris Poll conclusions.

Here is our email exchange about the Harris Poll findings which concluded that “Ads are interesting but not considered influential.”
The Doctor Says. . . .

Kelton: I know that more and more of your clients are now researching their positions and frames before launching campaigns. That’s a good sign, they must be listening to you! They will be much more successful if they invest in sound research, as opposed to intuition and internal consensus, which is how the ‘old guard’ still conducts influence campaigns.

The caveat is that the research needs to be sound. The Harris Poll you sent shows a complete misunderstanding of how to conduct influence-type research. You would think Harris would be more savvy in this area! What they do here, is ask people if they are influenced by advertisements. And, predictably, people answer largely in the negative… “No, advertisements don’t influence me.”

What they’re missing is a vital psychological truth: people don’t have access to their internal psychological processes. (This is, by the way, one of the main reasons Freud is so discredited today…he invested heavily in people being able to understand why they do what they do…and humans simply don’t have access to that type of information…so they invent ‘reasons.’) So you can’t just ask someone if they find an advertisement, or an argument, to be persuasive. They really don’t know, but they will manufacture an answer nonetheless. That manufactured answer in America (and other individualistic nations that value autonomy) is generally of the form, “No, you are incapable of influencing me.” In cultures where people try hard to avoid any tears in the social fabric, the answer is, “Yes, you are very persuasive.” The former: what I want to hear myself say. The latter, what I think the listener wants to hear. Both are manufactured answers that are required by my culture’s norms and may have no bearing on reality.

Stay tuned for part two…