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Measuring public opinion

Opinion publique

What is Public Opinion? 

Public opinion is the expression of the desires, wants or thoughts of the general public on a particular issue. It represents a common or popular opinion on a particular issue, such as public health or the economy. Measuring public opinion is called ‘polling’. Polling is most often used in election periods to measure the popularity of a candidate. Opinion polling however is not restricted to the elections. It is also carried out to get public views about various topics such as policy making or about the use of services. It is then a survey.

A Brief History 

Seeking public opinions has been a major feature of governments since the establishment of governing institutions. Even tyrants regularly seek to know their population’s opinion, if only to learn how to oppress them better. Organised polling is a much more recent development that only surfaced during the 20th century. 

The first major organised polling organisation, ‘American Institute of Public Opinion’ was founded by George Gallup in 1936. Gallup polled his mother-in-law’s constituency in 1932 when she was running against a popular incumbent and no one gave her a chance. His results showed she could win the election, which she eventually did win. This is the first of many elections Gallup and his organisation were to predict correctly. The social media serves as an emerging force for measuring public opinion in the modern times. 

Important Steps

  • Questions must be objectively prepared and the diction should be carefully chosen. A seemingly slight change in the wordings of a question could lead to widely differing outcomes. For example, no accurate answer would come from the following question: ‘how much do you resent the current gun control measures’. It would be better to ask this question: ‘what are your views on the current gun control measures?’

  • Random sampling must be ensured. Since it is theoretically impossible to obtain the opinion of every individual, the sampling must be done so that everybody in the target group has an equal opportunity of being selected. The opinion of the selected members should reflect that of the whole population. 

  • Contacting the respondents should be convenient and cost efficient, even though the latter could have an influence on the poll’s accuracy. Therefore a balance between the two must be found

Polling Errors 

The majority of errors linked to measuring the public opinion come from sampling errors. Sometimes during polling, the sample ‘public’ questioned may not be representative of the total population. For example, an online poll is likely to produce a skewed result that favours the opinion of youngsters as they are the major users of that platform. Sampling errors highlights the effect of uncertainty and chance in the sampling process. The uncertainty is usually expressed by a margin of error, which can be reduced by using a larger sample, but then the balance between the sampling costs and the error reduction must be established.

The second type of error may result from untruthful responses given by the respondents. This is however often difficult to determine. The responses should be obtained anonymously so that the respondents can give their opinion freely.

Why are opinion polls so important? 

Public opinions tell us what proportion of a population has a specific point of view. The polls do not explain why respondents feel the way they do, or believe the things they believe. They simply enlighten us about what their opinion is. Analysing or even explaining the polls is the work of social scientists and scholars. 

Polls are simply a measuring tool that tells us how a population thinks and feels about any given topic. This can be useful in helping different cultures understand one another, as it gives the people a chance to speak for themselves.  It is also interesting for marketers and companies, as it helps them get a grasp of public sentiment in order to start carefully planned and smart communication strategies.

Combined with careful analysis, measuring the public opinion can prove to be an effective tool  to develop winning marketing and communication strategies to help companies grow and get closer to their target audience.