Andrew Walmsley on Digital: A vote for the straw poll

Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

The need for speed is leading many marketers to seek out rapid, non-traditional polling sources.

Fellow marketing folk, we've got a problem. Given the choice of four major professions - estate agents, lawyers, architects and marketers - 29% of my survey would throw marketing people off the back of a ship, second only to lawyers.

It's an unfair question, of course; I could have made us appear more popular just by substituting politicians for estate agents, and bankers for architects. But this global survey (posted on took me less than 30 seconds to put together, and just 24 hours to run against a sample of 34 people.

This poll website lets you pose questions to the world, answer other people's questions and compare your answers with theirs. It's free, but if you've got money, you can push your question out faster and to more people, making it useful as a preliminary research tool.

Bad news for David Cameron on the world stage: at 39%, as many respondents think he's a film director as leader of the Conservative Party. Just 6% think he's a fashion designer, and 17% believe him to be an evangelical preacher.

Ask500People is part of a movement that is changing the face of planning and research.

Research has for years been fuelled by a toolkit that values accuracy over speed, research is the slow train of marketing. From commission to report often takes months, a time during which a business opportunity can come and go. Both tracking surveys and one-offs can take so long to report that their application is growing more limited, and cost has never been such an issue as it is in these straitened times.

Quick and dirty research has often been used as a gut-checker, to refine propositions and subsequent research. Speed to market has always been a competitive advantage, and, as the business cycle gathers pace, research via other venues such as social networks, search and buzz is becoming more attractive.

Firms are also shifting to more iterative means of development. They are less driven by large-scale planning, and more by test-and-refine approaches. They use the market to test their marketing, communications and products.

Some might question the accuracy, relative to older methodologies, but there is a fundamental point to be considered here.

There is an old adage that badly used research is employed like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than illumination. I use it here to make the point that research is about illumination. Research can rarely give you 'the answer' - life is not that definitive. Rather, it enables you to take steps in the right direction.

Google Insights for Search indicated Boris Johnson's victory a month before the London mayoral election. YouTube insights is regularly used in the testing of TV ads, looking at how interest is sustained through the video. Digg, Reddit and Stumbleupon tell us about the popularity of content, and Twitter, meanwhile, gives instant feedback on events, launches and questions.

Combining these tools is being used to predict pandemics, track brand health, test propositions, and develop content. One car manufacturer discovered from forums that mothers had expressed overwhelming concern about a feature of one model that the brand team, mostly men, had never expected. Their response was to make a YouTube video, and post links to it in the forum - closing the loop on a learning they'd never have got before.

Getting better at listening may never be enough to keep us from being thrown off the ship, however. As one of the respondents to my survey put it: 'I chose marketing people because most advertising sucks, and in the few cases it doesn't suck, it still sucks.'

Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 seconds on

  • The site was inspired by a 2004 book by James Surowiecki entitled The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki argues that 'under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them'.
  • The site positions itself as a rapid-response centre for broad polling. 'There are tools for surveying groups of independent voters, but they're either slow, expensive or both,' reads the site's introduction. 'We built Ask500People to gather input and opinion data in minutes instead of days.'
  • Current questions on the front page include 'You think our earth will be habitable after 2070?', 'Do you feel your boss is an idiot?' and 'How do you view govern-ment, generally?'
  • offers three tiers of business polling: internal polling, which is priced from $20-$200 and runs for several days; external polling, which costs $19-$149 and takes hours, and a formal survey, which runs for weeks and starts at $5000.


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