Monday, May 27, 2019

Push-Polls and Sales Surveys

Polls and surveys are a waste of time.

As I noted in a recent posting, companies are using something called "net promoter score" to justify raises for executives.  We are exhorted to take surveys and let them know what our feelings are.  The reality is, they really don't care about our feelings, so much as they want a high score so they can get a big bonus.  Sadly, this high score doesn't necessarily mean they want to provide better customer service.  Rather, the sales people exhort us to give them "all tens" on the survey, pleading with us not to take the food out of the mouths of their children.   Guilt, what's not to like?

There are plenty of other types of bogus surveys as well.  Push-polls are classic example of this.  They came into being in the 1980's or so and are still popular today.  Political types call up and ask you for your opinion on things, but they really aren't so much interested in gauging your opinion as in influencing it.  So instead of asking your opinion on Hillary Clinton, for example, they will say "Would you still vote for Hillary Clinton knowing that she's organizing a pedophile ring in a pizza store in Washington DC?"

It's a variation of the classic loaded question, "Are you still beating your wife?"  You can't answer the question without admitting to being a wife beater.  Some of these push poll questions put presuppositions into the questions, which are assumed to be true and not up for discussion.  You're not asked to answer whether or not these allegations are true, but whether or not you support the candidate based on these "facts."  It makes it impossible for the responded to say, "Hey wait a minute Hillary isn't running a pedophile ring out of a pizza shop!" - because that's not one of the answers you're allowed to give, on a scale of one to ten.

Others use these sort of push-polls to advance an agenda or "prove" things they set out to prove.  As I noted before, a lady sent out a survey here on our island asking us about how we felt about turtles and trees - with five pages of questions (they often ask the same question in different ways, to try to tell whether we are lying or not).   I suspect the "conclusion" of the study was determined in advance, and no matter what the result of the survey, anything we said could be used against us in the court of public opinion.

Recently, I received two survey requests via email which were not push-polls or attempts to raise some executive's net promoter score.  Rather, they were just bald-faced marketing attempts, disguised as surveys.  And this is not the first time this has happened to me.

The first one was from the Wall Street Journal.  The Wall Street Journal is now a Rupert Murdoch publication. I'm just guessing, but their circulation is probably down since Murdoch took over, as the paper has taken on a decidedly right-wing slant.  There is a mythology in the news business that there is a huge appetite for right-wing news in this country.  But I think Fox News has that sort of thing cornered already.  When it comes to financial news, I think people in the money business want impartial perspectives, not cheerleading for one political opinion or another.    If your raw data is skewed, you can't make rational market decisions.   Act rationally in an irrational world.   If you invest based on data from a Murdoch publication, well, you likely will go broke.

The other problem for newspapers is that so much of the content is freely available online, why would you bother to pay to access articles or to get a print subscription?  That was the point of the survey - to try to get me to pay for online access and a print subscription.

I kind of figured it was a bogus survey, but I thought I'd take it just to see where it went.  I took it several times, giving different answers to see where the responses went. It starts off innocuously enough asking what year I was born, what my profession was, the first three digits of my ZIP code, and so forth.

The first time I ran he survey, there was a question early on asking whether or not I would subscribe to the Wall Street Journal.  When I said "No" to this question, the survey bombed out, telling me that I wasn't "eligible" to take the survey.  I found this rather humorous as the premise of the email they sent me was that I would be entered into a contest to win $500 if I took the survey, but that no purchase was necessary.  But apparently a purchase is necessary in order qualify for the drawing.  I think the Wall Street Journal is breaking some sort of law here.

The next time I took the survey, I answered "Yes" to the question that caused it to bomb out the last time, when I had said "No."   It then went on to ask me about various publications such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, and of course the Wall Street Journal.  They wanted to know whether I've heard of these, whether we subscribed to them, or had subscribed to them, or whether I buy them at the newsstand, or read them online, or whatever. Again this seemed pretty straightforward stuff.

But then the survey took a bizarre turn, asking me how much I'd be willing to pay for a subscription to the Wall Street Journal and then offering several packages of combinations of print and online access at various prices.  The funny thing was, the range I gave that I would pay for a subscription was from $4.99 to $5.99.  The cheapest subscription package they offered started at 32 bucks and went all the way up to $65.

The survey then got stuck in an iterative loop where it kept asking me to rank the different subscription packages.  No matter what I answered, it kept asking me again and again to rank different subscription packages and whether or not I would subscribe to them. As long as I hit the button saying, "I'm not going to subscribe" it kept in this loop.  Finally, I indicated I would subscribe, and then it went to a page asking me if I would like to subscribe today.  When I said no, the survey bombed-out and said I wasn't eligible to take the survey.

But of course, I had an inkling going in, that this was exactly what they were going to do - try to sell me something.  It wasn't a legitimate survey, and you can sort of tell by the smarmy way they presented it in the email.  The only reason I answered the survey was as an experiment for this blog.  And no, I'm not interested in getting more right-wing news from The Wall Street Journal.

A second survey request arrived via email from Credit Karma.  I had signed up for Credit Karma a long time ago as part of another experiment for this blog.  Back then, there were very few sites that would give you a credit score.  Credit Karma, according to some sources, doesn't actually do this, but infers the credit score from your credit report.  However, in the days since Credit Karma started, more and more companies are offering credit scores for free.  Most credit card companies offer to give you your credit score several times a year, and most banks do this as well as part of a package of benefits for better customers.

It's sort of funny, only a few years ago, the credit reporting agencies acted like your credit score was some sort of deep, dark secret that only they could know.  But today, the data is blasted all over the place, and has little or no value.   Soooze Orman's FICO kit is now utterly worthless.

I didn't bother taking the Credit Karma survey, as they tipped their hand in the emails as to what it was about. They want to know why I wasn't using Credit Karma to do my taxes.  Apparently, doing taxes electronically is a pretty lucrative business.  The folks at TurboTax have been quite happy I used their service for many years, but the prices have escalated, it seems, with each passing year. When my father passed away, I used his accountant to file a tax return for his estate.  I asked her how much she would charge to do my personal taxes, and it turned out she was cheaper than TurboTax. Since then, I've been using her services as it seems like it's a lot easier to just hand somebody all of your 1099s rather than enter all this data by hand on a computer.

But again, what was interesting was that they were trying to sell me their tax service, disguising the sales pitch in the form of a survey.  Apparently people like to take surveys, and the internet certainly is abound with all sorts of pitches for surveys.  I noted early on in this blog that surveys are a waste of time and no, you can't make money taking surveys.   A plethora of websites are out there claiming you can actually earn a living taking surveys, because companies are so direly interested in what our opinions are, that they will pay us for this information.

But nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, surveys are wholly unreliable way of acquiring data.   Second of all, companies have much better ways of acquiring data than using surveys, particularly today.  People lie like a rug on surveys, but actual sales data and preferences tell the real story.   As I noted before, when surveyed, 70% of Americans claim they pay off their credit card every month, but the credit card industry data shows that 70% carry a balance.  Clearly survey data is inaccurate almost half the time.  Why bother taking a "survey" when you can acquire the real data for free, with the click of a mouse?

People vote with their pocketbooks, it is said.  And when people buy things, that says more about their actual preferences than what they claim in a survey.  We all lie to ourselves as to how much we spend on things that we shouldn't be spending money on.   Or we claim to be spending money on things that are good for us, when in reality we don't use those things as much.  We will claim that we're not wolfing down french fries, but instead eating spinach.  Our credit card receipts tell a different story.

With the advent of social media and online buying, this actual purchase data has become even more profound.  Twenty or thirty years ago, a large portion of our purchases were made with cash.  It was a lot harder to tell what people were buying, other than by gross sales amounts.  We could figure out how much of the product was selling, but not who the customers were, or why they bought.

Credit card data tells us general information as to what categories of shopping people are buying in. But online purchases tell us exactly what individuals are buying, and this data is very valuable.  When you buy something on Amazon, Amazon not only knows what you bought, but who you are.  And this information is stuff that can be sold to third parties at a profit.  Not only that, they can figure out what triggered you to buy by knowing your browsing history.   Did you buy that new widget after seeing a YouTube video about it, reading about it in the news,  after hearing about it in an online discussion, or on Facebook?   Once you know these triggers, you can manipulate more people into buying.  Or so goes the theory, anyway.

Despite all this, America has almost a religious-like belief in surveys.  Even after the election of 2016, when polls and surveys show that Hillary Clinton is now our President, people still look to surveys for salvation.  Democrats pull up survey after survey showing how unpopular President Trump is, or how we don't like him, and how he can't possibly win the next election.  They also pull up surveys saying that the vast majority of Americans want socialism, if not outright communism - and that we all support things like free college, debt forgiveness, slave reparations, and guaranteed annual income.

I think once again, Americans going to a rude awakening as to the reliability of survey data.

There is little point in taking a survey or responding to a poll.  Often, the people making the surveys or polls have an agenda and want to use your data to advance their own agenda.  In commercial applications, surveys and polls are little more than means of trying to sell you products or for trying to aggrandize some executive with a net promotion score.  No matter how you slice it, there's very little benefit to you, the consumer, in taking a survey.  And in fact, there's a net negative benefit in that you're wasting your time and handing out your demographic data to God only knows who.