Guest Blogger

The UK General Election is over days before every polling company, pundit, and political journalist expected it to be. The polls all said that it was too close to call, which would have triggered days or weeks of negotiations over how to form a new government.

Instead, David Cameron’s Conservative party has won a clear majority and he is already down to business appointing a cabinet the day after the election.

How could the polling experts have called it so wrong?

At this point we can only speculate, although the British Polling Council has announced an inquiry to investigate the election polling in detail. With such terrible forecasts, the polling companies need to explain what happened otherwise nobody will ever listen to them again.

I believe that the polling companies were subject to two major issues that will affect how they work in future:

Shy Tory Syndrome. When Neil Kinnock lost to John Major in 1992 it went against everything the experts expected. The term ‘shy Tory’ was coined to describe those who want to vote Conservative, but don’t feel comfortable informing friends, or polling companies, about their intentions. Possibly even misinforming them to keep friends and family happy. Shy Tory syndrome can be equally applied to minority parties such as UKIP.

The use of landlines. It is far cheaper to call landlines that to call mobile phone numbers, therefore many polling companies still predominantly use the landline as a channel. This can dramatically skew any sample. I only have a landline in my house because my Internet company insists on it, but I don’t plug a phone into the socket and I don’t even know the number. Many millions of people far younger than I am probably can’t even understand the concept of calling a house, rather than a person. Research done on landlines can only be significantly affected by this.

Yet although we have all seen Shy Tory syndrome before and know that polling companies appear to be getting more inaccurate in their polling, we go on relying on these organisations. The media companies must feel like fools after spending vast amounts of cash commissioning surveys and research that were almost entirely wrong.

Shy Tory syndrome is even more visible to the general public today because most people share their thoughts and actions on social networks, such as Facebook. I have hundreds of Facebook friends and not a single one of them talked about their plans to vote UKIP or Conservative. Even after the results came in, not a single one crowed about their victory. It’s like all the people who voted Conservative are not Internet users.

During the campaign the Labour party was the most socially active, with images and videos endlessly shared across every network you can imagine, right up to an Instagram of Ed Miliband leaving the Labour Party headquarters after his resignation. All this activity drew millions of likes, shares, and comments, and yet people still voted for the other guys.

At the heart of the problem for the Labour Party is that it seems that have just drifted away from what the average, fairly aspirational, person in England and Wales really wants. They have lost touch with their customers in the same way that big brands like Marks & Spencer or Tesco seem to hit pay dirt for a few years and then drift away from what the customer wants. Then they shake up the brand and products and return to favour.

The bottom line is that the customer will not always tell you when this is happening. If Ed Miliband believed the political commentators on Wednesday then he should have been preparing to lead a coalition to 10 Downing Street, yet he is now just a backbencher.

Corporate research is similarly fraught with danger. Openly asking your customers if they are satisfied doesn’t work. People will usually say whatever you want, just so they can move on with their day. Companies (and politicians) need better ways to monitor everyday interactions between themselves and their customers, so the real issues can be monitored and addressed.

Companies need to learn how to listen. To listen to discussions about their products, services, and brand in general, whether they are directed at the company or just background noise online. Politicians representing specific parties need to learn how to do this too.

They might think that they can tap into the national mood by reading the press, but newspaper proprietors don’t really know what is going on across the entire country either. If my phone company knew how fed up I am with their service, they might offer to help me, but they just don’t do a thing except collect their money each month. And I’m just waiting for the spare time I need to handl the change.

It’s time for our politicians to grow up and to learn what the people really want. It’s also time for major brands to realise that they are in the same boat. Most of their market research is useless. Customers will always tell you what they really think you want, but if you want the truth then you can’t ask. Just listen.

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