Donna Van De Water
Chief Operating Officer

So, What’s the Difference Between a Poll and a Survey?

To Inform or Predict?

It’s mid-term election season and that means we’re seeing all sorts of information in the media about polls, their results, and how predictive or not they might be.

We are often asked by our clients if we’ll “be conducting a poll” to inform our work.  The strategic thinking and planning behind brand development and execution typically does involve research with key constituents and stakeholders, both qualitative and quantitative. The qualitative research typically includes focus groups (either on-line or in-person) and in-depth individual interviews.  The quantitative work usually involves surveys.

So, what’s the difference between a poll and a survey?  A poll is almost always focused on a very specific topic—your opinion about a candidate, for example. All of the questions will have predetermined responses and you select the one that most closely aligns with your opinion or experience.  A good poll has been pre-tested and validated. A bad poll seeks to skew or influence your thinking about an issue or individual, not actually collect data to inform decision making. Well-designed polls also strive to ensure that data is collected from a representative sample of a particular population—likely voters, female heads-of-household, retired adults over the age of 65, and so on.

A survey to inform marketing and communications, on the other hand, is a different beast.  Just as a brand is complex and multidimensional, so is the research designed to inform it.  And, just as a brand (especially an institutional one) must connect with a multitude of audiences, so must the research.  Our surveys typically involve a mix of open- and close-ended items that help us understand current images and perceptions about our client and our client’s competitors.  They include top-of-mind associations and plans for the future (without forcing a predetermined response), for example, where a student plans to apply to college or why an alumnus made a donation to their alma mater.  We also use our survey research to understand what’s important or what drives the behavior of constituents and how they view the client’s delivery of those characteristics or attributes.  Making connections between what matters, or showcasing a key point of differentiation, is critical to brand development.

In addition, our surveys often seek to determine how our client compares to other institutions.  This might include admissions overlaps, “aspirant” colleges and universities, and/or others with similar profiles. Sometimes this is to provide benchmark information. Sometimes it’s designed to identify strengths and weaknesses. And, sometimes the comparisons reveal important proof points necessary to support the brand promise.

Polls are typically more simplistic; they take the pulse of a tightly defined target audience on a particular topic. Surveys are generally much more complex than polls. The surveys we conduct take a long-term view, and gradually separate the nuances of the brand from the perspective of constituents and stakeholders; this is critical to marketing and communication success.