Quick show of hands: How many of you, having read a story about a political or issue poll, a survey of consumer sentiment or ratings of TV shows, have said to yourself, “Who are these people? No one ever asks me.”
Okay, that’s just about everyone. Including your columnist.
Excluding those phone and mail “polls” during the campaign cycle that are really just solicitations for money or votes, the surveys that actually lead to news stories or decisions seem to be funneled to a population of people none of us has met.
Which made the arrival of an envelope by mail the other day a momentous event. “You’ve been specially chosen to help with an important research study about television viewing and radio listening,” the introductory letter announced.
Even more remarkable was the source of the lender – Arbitron, the national firm best known for its compilation of listenership data of radio stations in markets across the country. What’s notable about that is that, in a former journalistic life at a now-defunct Seattle newspaper, your columnist wrote (for about a decade) weekly reports on the local radio scene, including many stories on the quarterly ratings for the Seattle-Tacoma market.
“You are important to us,” the letter reassured the recipient, and to signify just how important, the letter and short survey included two crisp $1 bills, with the promise of $5 for filling it out and sending it in. Seven bucks for filling out a short survey? Keep ’em coming.
The survey itself asks some generic questions about time spent listening and viewing, but very few specifics about the stations, channels, programs or shows. That might be just as well; in a cableless home and in the absence of a commute, our current TV and radio consumption would drag down the averages of the American public. And knowing what he does about what media companies consider desirable age demographics, your columnist, while not quite to codger status, is all too aware of being outside the prime target audience.
Beyond those issues specific to the media business, it’s fascinating to watch how businesses deal with a question that, for all the technology they can throw at it and all the data they can accumulate, still vexes them: What is that crazy consumer going to do next?
Some businesses have an easier time of it. A retailer can track sales and inventory data for clues about trends in what items sell in what categories, in which stores and when. Newspapers long had circulation numbers to gauge consumer response; in the Internet age they can track clicks on stories to see what specific items or features are attracting reader attention.
But even that data can carry a business only so far. Did the clicks on a story come from someone in the paper’s readership territory, or from across the country (making them of little interest to local advertisers)? Did readers even notice who was advertising on the website?
The spread and increased power of electronic technology in some ways makes polling and surveying even more difficult. Phone interviews? Fine – have you seen the decline in households with landlines? (That’s actually a question on the Arbitron survey.) How are you going to find potential interview subjects? And the voting season now stretches over weeks, not hours. The result is false readings on trends in candidates, as was demonstrated in the last presidential election.
TV and radio have seen a dramatic change from the days when even a major market would have at most four or five television stations and perhaps a dozen significant radio outlets. The base audience has been eroded and fragmented by an abundance of choices not only in their home industries but from a proliferation of delivery channels and options outside them.
“What is your favorite TV show or channel?” the Arbitron survey asks. Does Netflix qualify as a channel? That’s where most of our viewing is done these days (Netflix can at least track what its customers are watching by the movies in their queues). All of this explains why there are companies making a business in “big data,” with clients figuring that if they accumulate even more numbers, eventually some pattern will emerge. Others are looking at how they can poke around your Internet searches and your social-media behavior to get a sense of what you might be enticed to buy.
And some will even resort to the lowest-tech approach imaginable, a paper survey delivered and returned by snail mail, with that most basic of motivators – cold hard cash. That they’re relying on such seemingly antiquated approaches reflects how hard it is these days to get the consumer’s two-cents’-worth – which, by the way, now costs $7 (plus postage) to obtain.Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific NorthwestRail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.