Who sponsored the poll you just saw? Is it hidden? Cause it should matter.

Public opinion polls enter the public domain for a reason and focusing on the poll sponsors of public polls gives us considerable insight into how and why public opinion becomes part of the national conversation.

Overall, the analysis shows that research firms themselves (33%) and the media (25%) pay for a majority of polls. Non-media sources, which are clients who paid a research company to collect the data, are responsible for 28% of the polling releases.

These non-media sources are responsible for a significant amount of non-policy, lifestyle polling but also a significant amount of the public policy polling available in the public domain.

… a surprising and perhaps troubling share of releases have no sponsor identified.

Type of Poll Sponsors of Publicly Released Polls

In assessing who the sponsor is, there is often no clear information. Two types of cases emerge. The first is that what are labelled as media releases may, in some cases, not actually be paid for by the media outlet (they simply might have been given exclusive early access to the poll).

Second, many polls featured on market research company pages do not have a sponsor identified. Some companies explicitly acknowedge that they funded the research but not all do. We will discuss some of this below.

Type of Content Supported by Sponsors

Not all content is supported equally by the four types of sponsors. Polling releases about the state of the economy are primarily spnsored by the media (68%) while releases about electoral and political competition are more likely to be research firm (51%) sponsored. 

Perceptions of Life and World — Polling as Content Strategy

Almost a quarter (24%) of polls released in Canada fit into a category that we call Perceptions of Life and World. In some ways, this is a residual category. If the poll is not about the economy, political competition or public policy it fits into this category. 

But what is in this category? Effectively, these are polls mostly about consumer behaviour and interests. How we bank. What flavour of ice cream we prefer. The key is that there is no inherent call to action on the policy front. If the poll is part of advocacy for policy change it would not be included here.

As a result, more than half (55%) of all non-media sponsored polls are about these perceptions of life and world topics. The other non-media sources are public policy related. The top non-media clients are:

  • CIBC
  • RBC
  • TD Canada Trust
  • CAA
  • BMO 
  • Accenture

Perhaps not surprisingly, the banks are the top non-media sponsors and the bulk of these are attempts to release polling in support of their product offerings. 


News Media | All about the Story

It is not a new insight that the news media tend to focus on the principles of news; drama, conflict and change. As such, horserace coverage (35%) is the top category of all releases.

Economic issues (24%) and policy (32%) are also important. Note that the media rarely sponsors polls about general perceptions of life and world. There is always a policy hook. 

Research firms Seeking Publicity

Electoral and party competition is the primary category of poll releases by research firms. These polls represent easy and short questions that can usually garner media attention. 

In fact, the media and research firm polls that are released are fairly similiar. The main difference is the slighter higher share of polls on perceptions of life and world for research firm sponsored and the fewer economic polls.

There is a natural symmetry between the news media and research firms because the goal of conducting polls for public release by research agencies and institutes is to get coverage. In fact, many media releases may not have involved money changing hands — they are defacto research firm polls.

Note that research firms includes several organizations committed to conducting and sharing public polling information in a non-partisan manner.

Unknown Poll Sponsors, Really

It seems hard to believe that a poll could manage to get into the public domain without some acknowledgement of who paid for it. Someone, either a client or the research firm itself, did. In 14% of cases the poll sponsor is unknown. Now some of these may have been self-commissioned by a research firm (they mostly appear on research firm sites) but we can never be too sure.

If a research firm does not explicitly say that they did not have an external client pay for the survey questions, should we just assume there was no external client?

For some polling the answer might be yes. For example, most elections and party competition polling by major research companies was probably not commissioned by someone else. If we treat elections polling as research firm funded, the share that is allocated to unknown drops to 9%. 

Nevertheless, 6% of all public releases where the sponsor is unknown are about public policy. For these, there may have been a real client who does not want to be known and in the absence of explicit acknowledgement that the polling was self-commissioned, these are releases we should be concerned about.


Summary

Knowing the sponsor of a poll provides you with some interesting insight into why the poll is getting into the public domain. In most cases, it is clear but in a surprisingly large number of cases the sponsor is unclear. And it should not be. Poll sponsors, particularly research firms, need to be more transparent.

Overall 58% of all polling gets released into the public domain by the news media (for a story) or by research firms looking to get covered in the news. This no doubt impacts, in some cases, what gets covered. Questions that are more political charged are more likely to be asked. Policy issues are naturally a large share of this polling.

Nevertheless, the poll sponsors of public policy polls are often non-media sources (31%). These polls contribute to the public discourse but are designed to influence the policy process/ Canadians rather than inform.

In fact, non-media (private clients) polling is interesting not only because of its role in influencing policy but also in the questions it asks of Canadians that are not politically motivated. These polling releases designed either to pique interest in the brand or to support a sales process represent a significant amount of what gets released.

Public polls are all about the Business of Reading our Minds

Richard Jenkins