As a brand strategist at an advertising agency in left-leaning Portland, Oregon that uses market research data to advise clients on how to effectively message and persuade people, it’s been a rough few weeks.
After feverishly hitting “refresh” on Nate Silver’s website every day before the election, I was feeling confident about the chances of our first female president. While Silver was more conservative than other forecasting polls, he was still giving Clinton a roughly 7-in-10 chance of winning the election. Those odds aren’t bad.
Then everything turned upside-down.
For as long as I live, I’ll never forget sweating out my anxieties on the treadmill that Tuesday evening while watching the real-time speed-dial graphic shift from showing Hillary Clinton with an 82 percent chance of winning the election, to revealing that Donald Trump had a 55 percent chance of winning merely two hours later.
This dramatic turn of events was especially difficult to comprehend given the earlier VoteCastR predictions on Slate that indicated turnout in Florida was greater than expected, with Clinton leading largely in all of the swing states. Around 7:30pm, I could no longer find up-to-the-minute VoteCastR results on Slate, nor on Vice, and by 8 p.m., my wife and I turned off the networks and started to watch something more soothing and predictable on Netflix.
While driving to work through thin traffic the next morning, I asked myself “How did all the pollsters get it so wrong?” and “Is picking a president like picking a product?”
Well, for one thing, the adage “Know your audience” rings as true as ever. If we hope to influence and persuade our audience, we must speak its language. As marketers who supposedly know what people want, we need to break out of our complacency and explore outside of our comfort zones, echo chambers, and East Coast media bubbles. For market researchers and advisers like ourselves, it’s time to eat some humble pie (and maybe this week’s Thanksgiving feast will be encouragement enough).
Yes, survey respondents sometimes tell us one thing and do another, but I’d say that those polled are generally truthful when indicating product and branding preferences. Yes, surveys and focus groups are blunt instruments, but they’re designed to reduce risk associated with marketing investments, not to replace judgment and experience when it comes to making product configuration and brand strategy decisions. It’s my hope that this election’s results do not further doom the attitudinal market research industry in favor of just looking at the shiny-new behavioral analytics driven by the web. Last I checked, attitudes still precede behavior, and we still need to ask people their preferences and what their intent to act is. The point is, we still need attitudinal surveys to understand the human motivations behind Big Data.
In terms of effective and persuasive communications, I believe we’re entering a post-factual, post-persuasive world — Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is “post-truth” after all — where brand identity and relevance play a greater role than rational, right brain appeals to sensibility. Trump’s post-policy and emotional appeals (“Make American Great Again”) were far more effective than Hillary’s rational, committee-approved “Stronger Together” appeals.
In other words, we need to get out more; out where there aren’t any elevators whisking us up to our presumably culturally sensitive and observant city perches above society. We need to better understand our audiences and learn to speak in its language.
The best example of getting out and listening to the voice of the people was the research that Cathy Kramer did in Wisconsin for her book “The Politics of Resentment,” which was used in The Washington Post to explain how politics are now more about personal identities and a sense of self, rather than rational policy arguments. The bitterness and resentment observed by Kramer towards political establishments in Washington and towards media and marketing elites in big coastal cities does not bode well for those creating brand appeals to a large segment of society that doesn’t feel like they’re getting their fair share.
Humble pie indeed.