As yesterday’s double whammy of ACNielsen and Newspoll showed, opinion polls are big news. They get page one placement in the papers, overflowing to comment by journalistic heavy hitters and often the pollsters themselves.

Of course, everyone involved knows it’s all a bit of a try-on, and that individual surveys don’t mean that much. But people like to read them, they cost a lot to produce and the rest follows suit.

What does an opinion poll cost to produce? It’s an industry secret, but we can do some simple sums. My understanding is that a telephone interviewer can generally get about 3 or 4 completed interviews per hour. If each is paid, say, $17 an hour, then a survey of a thousand people might cost around $5-6,000 in wages. Throw in a telephone bill of about a grand; because for every successful call there are probably at least five that aren’t – heating, lights, supervisor’s wage, you might get about $7-8k.

But suggest that figure to a pollster (as I did) and you’ll be laughed at (as I was), because it ignores the other costs of running the business: salaries, building rental, advertising, computers, software development, superannuation and so on. Maybe you could call $8k the marginal cost. The real price is two or three times that.

A survey of about 1,000 people might retail for about $20k. But the newspapers generally don’t pay top dollar for them. (The exception, apparently, is the Oz and Newspoll, but News Ltd owns one and half owns the other, and so some of it comes back in a profit dividend.)

The pollsters usually sell them cheap because they crave the publicity. In fact some low profile marketers practically give them away, and they are more able to do this if samples are tiny and/or the questions are tacked on the end of another survey paid for by someone else.

Look at it this way. The Australian Market and Social Research Society lists 280 companies. If you were looking to use a market researcher, which ones would you have heard of? Exactly.

Consider the publicity Galaxy has generated over the last fortnight alone. You just can’t buy that — but with placement in a high profile newspaper, and PR rampaging around all corners of the media, you don’t have to.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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