What do you think is the best way to track public opinion?
A) Conduct a poll based on a random sample.
B) Create an online poll and post it on Facebook, Twitter, or a blog.
C) Ask a Magic Eight Ball.
Most people would choose A. But in the past year and a half, some startups are going with B. It’s called social polling — soliciting quick feedback from social media followers to find out what they think about hot-button issues.
Two social polling companies that have launched in the past year — Quipol, founded by Max Yoder, 23, and GoPollGo, founded by Ben Schaechter, 23 — argue that the new ways people are using technology call for new ways of tracking public opinion. A study by Pew’s Global Attitudes Project published in December reported that 50% of Americans are on social networking sites. These startups cater to bloggers, journalists, and companies that are trying to both expand their reach on social networks and get to know their audiences better.
Most social polls pose provocative questions based on current events. GoPollGo has asked people to choose which product they can’t live without the most: Google or Apple. Quipol has asked users whether they would ditch cable in the age of Netflix and Hulu.
“Social media is the most comfortable way for people to get information,” says Schaechter, formerly of TechCrunch, a news website about tech startups. “[The polls] show up in their Twitter feeds or Facebook feeds, bridging the gap and making it simple.”
His Palo Alto company allows users to create polls on its website and see the results materialize in real time, from around the world and among all age groups. ESPN posts a GoPollGo poll to decide what the theme for Wednesday’s SportsNation poll should be.
On Quipol, users can also create polls, which have “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons below the question (think of the “Like” button on Facebook). A “Comments” tab invites participants to qualify their answers and share the poll on Twitter and Facebook.
“As users share their opinions with bloggers and the first degree of their social network, bloggers can reach new people that probably should be part of their core audience, too,” says Yoder, who lives in Indianapolis.
The most successful Quipol to date is, “Do you still support Susan G. Komen?”, which Forbes posted alongside its article about the breast cancer foundation withdrawing funding from Planned Parenthood. Seventy-eight percent of users answered “no,” and the poll attracted 10,000 responses and 70 comments.
“You’ll get feedback from the people who frequent your site, and that’s all that matters,” Yoder says. “It makes you a better writer and content creator.”
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Poll Position, which bills itself as both a polling and social media company, also surveys the country on subjects that come up in daily conversation. It differs from social polling companies in that it conducts polls the traditional way, based on random samples. But it pairs scientific polls with online polls to continue the conversation on the web.
A recent featured poll asked whether Obama was a better singer or president, referring to the fundraiser at New York’s Apollo Theater in which the commander-in-chief burst into Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
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Apparently 43% of Americans think he’s a better singer.
“Find that somewhere else,” says Eason Jordan, CEO of Poll Position and former chief news executive at CNN. “I just don’t think news organizations are polling Americans on the hot topics of the day beyond politics. Polling organizations work for clients and don’t cater to masses and don’t really poll on water cooler conversations.”
Gary Langer, head of Langer Research Associates, which conducts public opinion surveys for ABC News, doesn’t see social polling replacing traditional polling anytime soon.
“There’s no science behind it,” Langer says. “As qualitative research, it’s useful, like a focus group. A focus group is like a cocktail party without booze, but from them, you get a feel for body language and certain insights that you can go out and test in a quantitative way.”
Independent pollster John Zogby agrees that social polling won’t have the “accuracy” and “reliability” that random sampling does, but he believes it holds tremendous promise. In conducting online polls for clients since 2000, he has found that Internet surveys are generally more effective at getting people to answer “intimate” questions about personal behavior and biases, or asking questions that solicit strong “love ‘em or hate ‘em” answers.
Social polling’s biggest flaw is that social network users are not yet representative of the entire population, Zogby says. Pew reports that 80% of them are between ages 18-24, while only 26% are over 50. Most are college-educated, too.
“Until we’re able to document that 92% of likely voters have online access, social polling is not universal and far from it,” Zogby says. “There are significant pockets of people who aren’t there. People over 50, over 65 are online, to be sure, and growing, but not likely to use Facebook other than to talk to grandchildren.”
Based on the growing number of people under 35 who are on social networks, he believes the country will “absolutely” get there, just as people eventually accepted the major shift in the polling world in the 1970s: the change from knocking on people’s doors to calling landline phones––and later, cell phones—to gather public opinion.
Schaechter and Yoder understand social polling’s limitations. In the meantime, they see themselves as lending a voice to the social media population. Yoder, for instance, hopes that when people see their friends vote in Quipols, they’ll be inspired to put in their two cents as well.
“If people are out there sharing opinions, then that’s going to be influential,” Yoder says.
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C) Not able to answer by reason of Linsanity.