Customer Development and Research

The ‘Polling Apocalypse’ and Why Entrepreneurs Have to Find Better Ways to Know Their Customers

=Why we all need to get our heads out of our…

There are days when billions of humans around the world seem to gasp “Whaaat” in unison. Bobby Ewing taking a hot shower, Germany defeating Brazil 7-1, things like that. Then, there are the painful, shocking moments of the “This cannot be happening now” type.

9/11, Brexit, Trump becoming a president, and a long list of other countries electing presidents whom no one expected, or, as many people had thought, no one actually ever planned to vote for. How mistaken our judgment can be when our own desires, fears, and emotions are involved!


Of course, I absolutely must insert a picture of Bobby Ewing in the shower at this point.

I believe that Michael Moore’s article predicting Trump’s win provides a great analysis of people’s collective coping mechanisms and the innate bias of educated urban professionals thinking everyone else thinks the same way as they do.

Now, several friends of mine – who, by the way, perfectly fit the category of “educated urban professionals” – are trying to analyze why they were not able to see all this happening, as the bubble in which many of them (~us) have been living in suddenly popped.

The hard truth is that people are not like you and your friends. You don’t really know those people. You don’t feel what they feel.

If you ask those people what they want, straight to the point, many times, people will lie. It sounds as banal as a fridge magnet with a Paulo Coelho quote and the picture of a beach, but it cannot be emphasized enough times.


Now, Entrepreneur, do you think you know your customer (if you don’t know your fellow citizens either)?

It’s time we all pulled our heads out of the sand and realize how different kinds of people live in the same society as us.

The same goes for entrepreneurs, startup people, business people, developers, marketers, anyone that wants to create real value to people and get something back, may it be money, time, help or attention.

Are your customers “just like you”, let’s say, “Western”, “white”, with a Masters degree and a stable income, techie, liberal and a global citizen?  Or, to move away from demographic pigeonholes, are they all empathetic, caring, ambitious, active, do they all like to travel, enjoy contemplating contemporary art pieces, or feel that quality comes before price?

Do they give a shit about your specific political ideology or any other ideology you worship? Do they think rationalistically at all before they do something?  If not, then sorry my friend, but…

Chances are that you have no clue how your “target customers” really feel, think and act when you guys are not in the same room.

Start to get to know your peers and customers better if you want to survive in business, and in society

You have two important, basic tasks if you want your business to survive:

  1. You have to get out of your comfy ivory tower to know these people better. You have to get relevant and actionable information about them.
  2. You have to get that information the right way.

What do I mean by getting information the right way?

You have to avoid committing a long list of mistakes that ultimately lead to the other person saying what you want to hear.

These include pitching instead of asking, posing theoretical questions that imply that the person is actually interested even if they are not (e.g. “How much would you pay..?”), etc.

There are tons of tips out there about how to avoid doing self-serving, biased customer research instead of a valid reality check.

Generally speaking, the moment you start asking the other person about what they will do or what they would do, you’ve entered a social danger zone.

If your interviewee or survey respondent feels that their answer may be “awkward” in any sense, they might start hiding the truth from you, or say one thing, then walk away and do something entirely different.

It may happen because you have designed a product you are clearly trying to sell to them and they don’t want to hurt you, or because a certain answer would make them seem stupid, egocentric, materialistic, clumsy, undereducated, etc.


It takes way too much courage to admit that we most likely don’t want to give money to X charity or that we actually enjoy watching Y trashy TV show every now and then, to just name a few examples.

One day was enough after Trump becoming the president against all odds for marketers and market research companies to start mourning over the weaknesses of traditional large-scale survey techniques and polling. I especially liked an insightful piece on AdAge discussing what pollsters’ failure to predict the US elections’ outcome means for marketers, citing brands and providers like SurveyMonkey.

They believe that asking people about who they will vote for directly amid all the cultural prejudice against the archetype of the “Trump voter” made them feel uncomfortable enough not to share their real intentions with the person interviewing them over the phone.

No one wants to feel uncomfortable.

Researchers and analysts nowadays agree that traditional methods such as surveys should be paired with other sources of data about the individuals, such as quantitative information about their (past) behavior. Facts over opinions.

As a product manager or entrepreneur, you should aim at balancing qualitative insights with behavioral data as much as possible.

Track how people use your product, site or MVP, set up measurable experiments, call-to-actions, and so on.

Why the “why-s” are what matter most at the end of the day

This does not mean that it’s not important to get those qualitative insights from your target customers, too.

But you need to start asking the right questions, asking about past acts and habits, rather than about a theoretical future, and, generally speaking, trying to dig deep to understand the why-s. You should try to understand your customers’ – and peers’ – drivers and feelings, pains and desires, and why they act the way they do.

The article by AdAge referenced above mentioned one small polling company who started asking people about “who they thought their neighbors were going to vote for” in the elections, and they started noticing a small growth in Trump preferences when compared to direct personal questions.

Now, this was an utterly theoretical question, but this whole story tells a lot about the human psyche and how people are hiding their real sentiments.


What could have been the next step? The interviewer could have asked why the person assumed that. Or, instead of asking for a candidate’s name, ask the person what they have hoped for, what made them frustrated over the last few years, or was there anything that made them feel betrayed, abandoned and angry. And so on.

Choices like political preferences are not black and white. Neither are shopping decisions, brand preferences, or the way we raise our kids, or date people. Trying to understand their roots is not easy, but we should not give up on it.

It takes a long, long shot, lots of hypotheses, assumptions and a thick layer of subjective analysis to reach a point where we feel we know more about why people feel the way they do and what the likely consequences may be and how we could act to address those pains and desires. (I strongly encourage entrepreneurs and product marketers to start reading about behavioral economics, e.g. the works of Dan Ariely.)

And we still may end up being completely wrong.

It is, to a large extent, just psychological analysis, and it is never as pure and objective as behavioral data can be. But combining those approaches can help us get out of the bubble we in more fortunate parts of the world live in and get closer to the actual fellow human beings who we so desperately need to survive.

Image credits: Carrie Marill, Dallas / CBS, Unitedthread on Etsy, Toothpaste for Dinner, Quickmeme

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