Tag Archives: PR measurement

How Content Distribution Drives Message Discovery (and Results!)

Like any business, sometimes our own story needs telling.  Earlier this year, we decided that we needed to do some PR for our MultiVu business, which focuses on the production and distribution of multimedia content.   It’s cutting edge stuff, with some truly unique aspects, and it sits right between PR and marketing, and we needed to offer some explanation and raise awareness of these services.

So what did we do?  We did the same thing any of you, our customers, would do.   First, our team brainstormed the messaging.  They outlined the key points we needed to convey from a brand standpoint, and then approached the messaging from the opposite context – the questions our audience often asks has about producing video and other multimedia content, and the various struggles that can complicate these projects.

“The hardest thing to do is to distill what you do into a short-form, engaging video,” noted Bev Yehuda, vice president of web engagement products for MultiVu.  “We had to apply what we tell our clients all the  time regarding developing a video: if you don’t take the time out during the process to determine what your elevator pitch is, you run the risk of creating irrelevant content.”

With the messaging drafted, it was time to determine the medium.   Since this was about MultiVu, we knew we needed to use multimedia messaging.   We wanted to show our expertise (and our personality!) in a fun and friendly way, so we went with an animated approach.

Upping exposure with distribution

Once our animated video was done, we packaged it into a multimedia news release (“MNR”,) which combines a variety of distribution strategies and channels.

mv mnr explainer

Here’s a snapshot of the MNR we created to promote the MultiVu video. Click on the image to see the whole thing.


Of course, we could have simply shared the video socially – and we did post it directly to a number of social sharing sites – but the distribution component that is built into an MNR is crucial, for a number of different reasons:

  • Distribution drives discovery, delivering content to relevant audiences across the web – on channels, via news web sites and in industry niches.
  • Discovery seeds social conversation, amplifying your message, and increasing exposure to relevant groups.
  • Social conversations deliver third party credibility that can spur people to take action.
  • Distribution increases the number of digital touch points for your brand, and if your audience values the content, it will gain visibility in search results.  Search engines are informed by user activity and interactions around a piece of content.

How Content Distribution Drives Social Interaction

Prior to the release of the MNR, we shared the video itself on PR Newswire’s Facebook and LinkedIn pages. More than 1,400 of our Facebook fans saw the video, and it was liked by 6 and shared by 3.   It fared better on LinkedIn, where it was seen by 1,983 people, generated 30 click-throughs and 8 shares.  Decent exposure for the two minutes (if that) required to share the video with PR Newswire followers.

mv distribution effect on social

However, if you need proof of how distribution drives social interaction with content, you needn’t look any further than the sharing numbers the MNR generated.  Readers of the MNR shared it with their Facebook friends 196 times (as of this writing.)

Distributed content reaches qualified, interested audiences.  And social shares have a strong viral effect, triggering more shares.

Overall Multimedia News Release Results

The social sharing was just one aspect of the visibility the MNR generated for MultiVu.  Over all, adding distribution paid off for this project, tallying thousands of reads of the press release — and tens of thousands of video views.

mv explainer Multimedia News Release Results

It’s very satisfying for us to put on a “customer” hat and use our own services to promote our messages, and witness first-hand how our networks deliver lasting results and visibility.  And based upon the results of this campaign, you can look for more from these animated characters created by MultiVu – several more videos are in the works!

Want to explore creating your own “explainer” video or learning about how multimedia distribution can increase discovery of your brand’s messages?  We’d love to hear your ideas, and help turn them into reality. Contact us for more information.

sarah avatarAuthor Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the e-book “Unlocking Social Media for PR.”  Follow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik .

Press Releases With Multimedia Get More Views

best press release format tips multimedia news release

Press releases that offer readers a variety of multimedia options (e.g. video, images, downloads) generate almost 10 times more views than plain-text messages.

A couple years ago, we looked at big chunk of press release data, and learned a lot about what drives results.  We’ve discussed press release writing tips and tactics – such as headline structure, release timing and embedding links – that contribute meaningfully to generating more readership and engagement for press releases.

But nothing – NOTHING – does a better job of driving press release reads than adding some sort of visual.   Today, we’re releasing the results of another survey of press releases,  and the benefits of adding visuals are clear – press releases with an array of visual offerings get almost 10 times the views logged by their plain-text counterparts.


I think we can all agree that competition for audience attention is fierce these days.    In addition to competing for attention in the newsroom,  our messaging also needs to compel social media denizens to share, like and tweet the content.   Search engines also pick up signals from readers of your content that ultimately determine where the content lands in the search engine results page (SERP) that users see when they use Google or Bing to find something online.    Suffice it to say,  the press releases and other content we publish are now wearing just as many hats as we do.  And when planning a campaign, it’s important to think about that.  The press release you write to communicate with key media will also be seen by bloggers, analysts, employees and customers – both current and prospective.   Including multimedia content that captures and focuses attention on your message will give your content real competitive advantage in today’s crowded information marketplace.

Need some help getting started with planning visuals for upcoming campaigns?  Take a look at our collection of blog posts about Visual PR.  We’ve collected all sorts of advice from best practices for brands on Pinterest to scripting video yourself to creating infographics.

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media.

Award-Winning (really!) Content Distribution with the ARC Engagement Platform

While content is the cornerstone of most marketing strategy, it does a brand little good if people don’t see it.  That’s why content distribution, and the content delivery networks that power that syndication, are the subject of a lot of interest these days.

If you know PR Newswire, you know that “content distribution” is our middle name.    At its core, PR Newswire is a content distribution powerhouse, delivering hundreds of messages – including text, images and video – daily, via ultra high speed internet, lightweight apps, social networks, RSS, satellite and e-mail.

Our team are constantly pushing the envelope on this idea of distribution, because, simply put, unseen content doesn’t do its job.  To be effective, messages must be seen, heard and experienced.  Behind the scenes, we’re busy building the next generation of content delivery mechanisms, including lightweight widgets that simplify multi-language syndication, and dynamic media players that deliver refreshed content automatically.

We’re doing a pretty good job, too.  In fact,  the dynamic media player is at the heart of our award-winning ARC Engagement Platform, a content distribution tool that marries branded HTML page and an embeddable, shareable, interactive media player.  The ARC enables PR professionals and marketersto easily create, manage, and update digital content and connect with their audiences through multimedia content, national distribution, social sharing and specific calls-to-action throughout the course of a campaign or messaging cycle.

We’re proud of the fact that the ARC has been recognized with a slew of awards this year, including:

Custom Content Council – Pearl Awards Gold Winner for Best Microsite

PR Newswire and Mullen Advertising were recognized for Mullen’s use of the ARC as the primary vehicle to drive the Men’s Wearhouse’s Fifth Annual National Suit Drive.  By creating a branded, content-rich hub, sharing ongoing campaign updates and incorporating specific calls-to-action to drive clothing donations and online fundraising, Mullen successfully converged their earned, paid and social media efforts and executed an integrated, content marketing campaign that exceeded campaign goals.

PR News Digital PR Awards: Digital Marketing Campaign (under 100k) & Ragan’s PR Daily

PR Newswire and Apple Vacations received recognition by PR News and Ragan’s PR Daily for the use of the ARC to execute a digital marketing campaign promoting winter getaways in the Dominican Republic.   Apple Vacations tapped into the power of  PR Newswire’s ARC to not only share a complete library of visual content of their own and of their travel partners, but also to support their SEO strategies and help them align their traditional earned media efforts with their paid media efforts.  PR News awarded the campaign an honorable mention in their Digital PR Awards and PR Daily is slated to announce the winners of their Digital PR & Social Media awards in January 2013.

Expo Magazine E.X.C.I.T.E. Award

The ARC has also proven to be a successful tool to manage a communications strategy throughout the entire life of an event.  Earlier this year, PR Newswire,  Freeman  and Exponation for their use of the ARC as a dedicated microsite for the 2012 Digital Signage Expo (DSE).  The ARC, which housed a suite of event-related multimedia content, acted as a comprehensive microsite for both event exhibitors and attendees. DSE was able to generate significant event exposure, while also sharing relevant, timely content as it became available to maintain interaction with its existing audience, as well as attract new audiences.  The 2012 DSE show was their most successful to date.  (See our digital event marketing case study for details.)

We know that multimedia content generates more views and engagement than plain text, which isn’t at all surprising, since humans are visual creatures, and because most search engines and social networks give visual content more weight (and thus, visibility).   So we’re continuing to forge ahead in developing new ways to distribute content and connect with audiences.

Want to learn more about the ARC?  See some additional details and request more information about it right here.

Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media.

Press Release Engagement: When Your Reader Takes “The Next Step”

A few weeks ago, we added the Instant Access button to our popular ReleaseWatch reports, providing immediate access to the comprehensive Visibility Reports press release measurement reports  PR Newswire provides with each message we distribute.  At the same time, we also started sending a “Five Day Reporting Snapshot” via email, to make it easier for everyone to see the results their releases are generating.

(Related reading:  New Press Release Measurement Reporting Features!)

Press release engagement, defined

In addition to simply telling you how many times your press release was read (which we call “views,” we also summarize the number of times your readers took a “next step.”  We call those actions “engagement.”

Simply put, when someone reading your press release on PR Newswire.com takes another action with the release, we consider that to be engagement.     So what are these other actions readers can take when reading a release on PR Newswire.com?

  • Clicking through on an embedded anchor text link within the press release
  • Clicking on a URL within the press release
  • Sharing the press release on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Google+ using any of the sharing buttons we embed on each release page
  • Printing or e-mailing the press release
  • Bookmarking the story on sites like StumbleUpon, Digg and Delicious, using the buttons embedded on the release page
  • Embedding the press release in a blog post or other web page, using the Embed button on the release page

Engagement actions are important, which is why we call them out separately within the press release reports we provide.  When one of your readers takes one of these next steps, they get closer to the ultimate objective of your press release, whether that is selling a product, generating support for a cause, encouraging downloads of a white paper or driving traffic to a web site.

The Engagement Index

On the Five Day Snapshot, you’ll also see a reference to the “Engagement Index.”   This index is designed to give you an idea of how your messages are performing when compared to press releases issued by other organizations within the same industry category.   While these categories are fairly broad – the “retail” category will group giant retailers and small mom & pop stores together – they do a good job of giving you some feedback on how your messages are faring within your sector.

Index scores range between 0 and 100, and 50 is an average score.   Scores above 50 are highlighted in green on the reports, and scores below 50 are colored yellow.

An important sample of audience reaction & message effectiveness

While the reports just capture the activity your releases generated on one web site (PR Newswire’s), the information is nonetheless informative, and provides a solid indicator of how audiences responded to your messages.

The index scores are especially useful when you log into the Online Member Center, and access your entire Visibility Reports dashboard, which aggregates all of your press release reports in one place.   (The Instant Access link only provides access to the report for a single release – to access all of you .) When you’re in the dashboard, you can see clearly which releases generated higher engagement scores.  Why is doing this important?  Simple.  Comparing the engagement results of different releases will help you develop an understanding of what sort of content your audience prefers – and what content is most effective.  Taking the analysis a step further and looking at the activities the releases generated can give you more insight into how your audience is using the press releases you issue.

We think engagement is important to think about, because ultimately, engagement describes whether you captured your audience’s attention, and inspired them to act.  It’s a far more involved measure than many, but we think it’s one of the most important, because it helps you understand whether or not a message was effective in inspiring action, not just acquiring eyeballs.

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media.

New Press Release Measurement Reporting Features!

We all know that measuring the impact and outcomes of a PR campaign is tough, and here at PR Newswire, we’re doing all we can to help customers understand and quantify the results their press releases generate.

Today we’re rolling out some important changes for US customers to our Visibility Reports and ReleaseWatch press release measurement reports, both of which are included when you distribute your press release via PR Newswire.

Visibility Reports “Instant Access”

Starting today, you’ll see a green button at the top of your ReleaseWatch reports, labeled “Visibility Reports Instant Access.”

Clicking on this button will take you to the Visibility Reports page for that press release, where a variety of different metrics relating to your press release – such as online views, media views, demographic data and search engine referrals – will accumulate over the coming days, weeks and months.

At first, the reports won’t show much – though results start to accrue immediately, it does take a little time for audiences to find and engage with your messages.  We find that many press releases generate significant reads over a few days post-issue.   To ensure you get a handle on your results, we’re going to start sending you reminders to check your report at the two, five and 30 day marks.

The 30 day reminder email.

Summary results delivered directly via email

The reminder you receive on the fifth day after you issue a press release will also include a high-level summary of your press release results to date, in addition to the Instant Access button, which will enable you to access the full report for that particular press release.

A partial snapshot of the summary report that will be delivered via email the fifth day after you issue a press release.

We want to make it easy for you to quickly capture the most up-to-date results for your press releases, which is why we developed Instant Access to your reports.  For an in-depth view of all your stored press release measurement reports, access the the Visibility Reports dashboard in the Online Member Center.

Which Newswire Service Do Journalists Prefer?

PR Newswire (http://s.tt/1oqEK)

Of the journalists surveyed by Vitis PR, 54% found that PR Newswire was the most valuable newswire followed by PA** (38%), SourceWire (37%) and Businesswire (34%).

Technology PR and search agency Vitis PR has announced the results of its recent survey of UK journalists, which reveals which newswires/press release distribution* services journalists actually read and to what extent they find these services useful in their work.

Vitis PR surveyed 80 UK journalists from its own contact lists across a variety of industries. The survey targets included consumer and business technology, marketing, cleantech, ecommerce/retail and the automotive sectors. The agency believes that these results are also applicable across other vertical sectors.

Journalists, from daily newspapers to well respected websites and freelancers took the time to help the PR agency to understand:

  • How often do journalists use newswires?
  • Which newswires are the most valuable?
  • What newswires are used for?
  • How newswires should interact with journalists?
  • How often do journalists use newswires?

Many journalists make newswires a regular part of their news gathering and research routines.

Respondents were asked to indicate which services they found most valuable in their work.Of the journalists surveyed, 54% found that PR Newswire was the most valuable newswire followed by PA** (38%), SourceWire (37%) and Businesswire (34%).

Newswires specific to particular verticals were also mentioned by individual journalists, including:

  •  NewsPress (automotive)
  • Headline Auto (automotive)
  • Gamespress
  • Technology4Media

Based upon the comments Vitis PR received, journalists indicated (perhaps unsurprisingly) that industry-specific services tend to be more valuable.

What are newswires used for?

78% of respondents said they use newswires for news stories, while 56% use wires for article or feature ideas and 56% for monitoring industry trends.  Many also cited newswires’ role in factchecking.

“Writing news for a monthly print publication I simply use newswires as an easy way to find/verify information, “one respondent noted. “They are often faster/easier than navigating corporate websites and press rooms. Links in wire releases to images and more information are particularly useful.”
Jas Sahota, Director, Vitis PR commented: “We believe that the best way to target a journalist is to follow them, understand what they write about, pitch a story to them exclusively and provide them with good content. While wires offer the ability to provide additional information the feedback from our respondents is that (on the whole) newswires need to find a way to help cut through the volume of less valuable releases.”The full results of the survey, including more insights gleaned from the journalists who responded, are available on the Vitis PR web site: Which newswires do journalists actually read? 80 journalists surveyed.PR Newswire (http://s.tt/1oqEK)

Mapping the Reach of Content Distributed by PR Newswire

Press releases and other content distributed by PR Newswire reach audiences via news media, search engines, social networks and a huge global content syndication network.


Demand More From Your Press Releases

By now it’s no secret that content is the cornerstone of today’s communications campaigns.  Interesting content fuels social media discussion, provides important fodder for search engines and it’s an integral part of automated and inbound marketing campaigns.  Public relations departments and agencies are prodigious creators of content, and much of that content is in the form of press releases.

From what I’ve seen, many press releases issued today appear to be pretty traditional in terms of formatting and goals.   In reality, today’s information environment offers more opportunity for PR pros to reach audiences and influence outcomes.  To do so, however, we need to rethink the press release. Simply put, I think it’s time for us to expect more from our press releases in terms of audience reached and outcomes delivered.


Traditional media – and their new media audiences:  Traditional newsrooms are still the primary objective for most campaigns featuring press releases.  However, it’s important to remember that journalists at all different types of media outlets are now charged with creating content for blogs, podcasts and videos; and also for feeding the social media engines that power today’s audience engagement.  Instead of thinking about targeting a journalist, as you craft your message, think about his or her audience (and what would be interesting to them) instead.

Emerging media: Even if your news item never sees the light of day in a print publication, don’t dismiss the power of the digital realm.  Socially-connected influencers can be extremely powerful.  One simple tweet from the right person can amplify your organization’s message amongst a focused group of people who are more likely to be interested in (and act upon) your message than most of the rest of humanity.

Direct to constituents: Of course, one thing we have to think about is the simple fact that brands can now connect directly with audiences.   So, as we write press releases, we need to be thinking in terms of creating content that will resonate with our current and potential customers.  And, of course, communicators also need to pay close attention to building the channels in social networks enable this type of close communication with constituents.


Media pick up …and re-Tweets?  For many issuers of press releases, media pick up is still the gold standard of desired outcomes.  But given how people consume information today, it’s worthwhile to think long and hard about re-defining what “media pick up” means to your organization.  What about that influential tweet mentioned a few paragraphs ago, and the spate of re-tweets it spawned.  What about the enthusiast blogger with a fast-growing following who is a fan of your brand?   As you plan to measure pick up, think in terms of total influence, and don’t leave any exposure on the table.

Measurable objectives:  One of the exciting things about today’s communication environment for PR professionals is that we’re finally able to make direct linkages between the messages we produce and real business outcomes.  Instead of staggering into the head honcho’s office with armloads of clip books, we can now point to web analytics that show traffic to a web page, downloads of a white paper, or the number of lead forms submitted.  However, you can’t have this happy experience if you don’t embed measurable calls to action into your press releases.

Social buzz and conversation – measured and benchmarked: “Buzz” isn’t an outcome we should really be talking about in a serious way.  In my opinion, there is a difference between “chatter” and “conversation.”    Sure, it’s nice when a press release you issue is tweeted and shared and liked and pinned – but (hopefully) its social life doesn’t end there.   To get a handle of the impact of your messages in the social sphere, keep tabs (and benchmark regularly) the key statistics that illustrate the real effect your messages are having in social channels, including:

  • Pay attention to engagement.  Are people clicking “follow” next to your brand’s handle on Twitter and then tuning you out? Or is your brand developing some real traction with the audience? Simply tracking the number of friends, fans and followers isn’t enough.  Instead, pay attention to the number of times your content is shared, the amount of traffic coming to your web site from social networks and the share of conversation your brand enjoys.  Sure, these numbers should increase as your fan base does.  However, keeping an eye on the ratios of fans to actions, for example, can give you real insight into how efficiently your organization is communicating.
  • Improvement in search engine ranking. Social signals are now among the most important ranking factors for search engines.  If you generate authentic conversation in social channels, chances are good that search engines will notice, and will vault the talked-about content to the top of the search engine results page.  And that’s good for business.

If it feels like this article took a turn into the domain of digital marketing, well, that’s because it did.  A brand’s communications – irrespective of which department actually deployed the content – end up working together online.  To get the most out of the content public relations departments are creating, they need to take a page from their marketing colleagues’ playbooks, and apply those tactics to press releases.

Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the free ebook Unlocking Social Media for PR.

This Wire Works: PR Newswire vs. PR Web

The summary of press release results, from WolfCom.


PR Newswire is a good-sized company, and there’s a lot more to us than the teams of account managers and content specialists, with whom our customers are in frequent contact.

Behind the scenes, we have teams devoted to building the audience for the press releases you issue via PR Newswire.   Our media relations and audience development teams recruit journalists and bloggers for the PR Newswire for Journalists media site, which serves tens of thousands of media professionals worldwide.  Our syndication team adds new web sites to the global network of web sites that source news from PR Newswire.  Our online teams curate and share content on Twitter, building the social audience for news. And our web team is constantly fine tuning the performance and visibility of our web site.

Their work delivers the results you see when you use PR Newswire.   The media views, the online views and the search engine referrals your press releases receive are the direct results of the work one by these folks, who operate behind the scenes, and, let’s face it, are somewhat unsung.

Simply put, we work hard at making the wire really work.

Every now and then, a customer will take the time out to do a comparison between PRN and a competitor, and they’ll publish the results.  We were very gratified when we saw a blog post titled “Wire Service Showdown: PRWeb vs. PR Newswire” on WolfCom’s blog today.

They compared PR Newswire and PR Web in a head-to-head match-up, using identical press releases.

“PR Newswire clearly won the matchup, both in terms of overall performance and in terms of performance per dollar spent. The regional distribution option actually got national coverage and still ended up beating out PRWeb’s national distribution. Most importantly, PR Newswire beat PRWeb in the Google search results, showing that it is superior for meeting SEO objectives,” they noted in the blog post today.

We’re very glad for WolfCom’s business, and are grateful for taking the time out to share the results of their experiment.    As I mentioned, a lot of work goes into the care and feeding of our distribution network, and seeing this post from WolfCom sure made a lot of people smile.

Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the free ebook Unlocking Social Media for PR.

We’ve just announced The Crowd-Sourced eBook: The Definitive Guide to Social Influencer Engagement and invite you to contribute.

Dear Gracie: Tips and Tricks for Interpreting Polls

Each week, Dear Gracie answers questions from ProfNet Connect readers with advice from our network of nearly 50,000 ProfNet experts. Has there been a question burning in your mind lately, something you’ve been wondering that none of your colleagues can answer? Please send it to grace.lavigne@prnewswire.com

Dear Gracie,

With elections approaching, I’ve seen a lot of polls in the news recently. How do we know if the polls are accurate or biased?

Puzzled by Polls


Dear Puzzled by Polls,

Three ProfNet experts provide some insight:

What You Need to Understand About Polls

“Creating and fielding a poll is not something that just anyone can do at the drop of a hat,” says Jason Reineke, associate director of the Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) Poll, which is a statewide, biannual poll of Tennesseans; as well as the university’s assistant professor of journalism.

“It is both an art and a science, and the people who do it well usually have extensive training and expertise,” continues Reineke. “Like a journalist, lawyer or medical doctor, being a pollster is a profession.”

Polls are snapshots in time and not predictive tools, explains David Schultz, law and graduate school professor at Hamline University’s School of Law, and editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education. For example, polls conducted today about the presidential elections are not necessarily indicative of what will happen in November.

“A common problem with political polls is that they are often fielded by one party to support its agenda,” adds Bob Clark, president of 24K Marketing.

Some polls are better than others, but the value of a poll can be better determined by the goals that it was designed to address, rather than one-size-fits-all rules, says Reineke. “Nonetheless, there are some standards that can be applied across most polls.”


Pollsters should freely and honestly report information about the poll’s funding, affiliation, methodology, data and analysis, explains Reineke.

“If the source of a poll can’t or won’t tell you how they sampled respondents, how they interviewed them, what the questions and response options were, what the response rate was, or other details about the poll, then the results should be taken with a commensurate grain of salt,” he advises.

Also, be skeptical of a poll if it was designed and conducted by someone without recognized credentials, experience and reputation, says Reineke. Just you’d be skeptical about a doctor without a degree or a journalist without any bylines.

Reineke suggests checking out the website of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). “If a pollster is not a member of AAPOR, or is dismissive of the organization — or worse yet has never heard it of — that should be cause for concern.”

Poll Questions

One indicator of bias in surveys are leading questions, says Clark. For example: Are you better off now under the Obama administration than you were four years ago?

This question is biased because it ties Obama to the issue, says Clark.

“A poll is only as good as the questions asked,” agrees Reineke. Questions should not encourage or discourage respondents to provide a particular response over others, and should only ask about one thing at a time.

Conversely, answers to questions should not include biased or politically charged words, says Clark. For example, phrases like “tax breaks for the rich” (instead of “tax reduction/reform“), “Obamacare” (rather than “healthcare reform“) and “War on Terrorism” (instead of “War in Afghanistan“) are all political labels with divisive meanings.

“Answers to questions that include these terms are more likely to be used by one party to validate their agendas,” Clark explains. Thus, this is not a projectable measurement of public sentiment on issues.

Reineke also suggests considering these three guidelines regarding poll answers:

  • Response options should be exhaustive, meaning that any possible response is represented by a response option.
  • Response options should be mutually exclusive, meaning that participants will need one and only one response to indicate their answer.
  • Pollsters, and consumers of their results, should also pay attention to potential order effects, meaning the ways in which a previous question, or a participant’s response to it, might affect interpretation or response to following questions.

Population Sampling

“Polls work by contacting a sample of the population of interest,” says Reineke. That sample should be representative, meaning it should have the same proportion of all important characteristics as the population.

Representative samples are often achieved through random sampling, which means every member of the population has an equal chance of being selected, he says. “Pollsters should be prepared to explain how their sampling is random if they claim it is so.”

“In cases where sampling is not random, pollsters should be able to explain how their sample is representative of the population, and provide appropriate cautions about the extension of results to groups who were not adequately represented in the sample,” continues Reineke.

Population Size

“The size required for a random sample to be representative of the population in question is dependent on the size of the population,” says Reineke. “The larger the sample, the smaller the margin of error.”

In the simplest terms, “margin of error” is a statistic that shows how well the selected sample predicts things about the entire population.

Look at margins of errors when evaluating polls, suggests Schultz. “I would say any poll with margins of errors greater than +/- 4 are meaningless, since that means the results could be off by as much as eight points.”

Interestingly, there is not much difference between the margin of error for a sample of 5,000 Americans vs. a sample of a million Americans, says Reineke. However, there is a significant difference in margin of error for a sample of 500 Americans vs. 2,500 Americans.

Statistical formulas aside, as a rule of thumb, you should look for a sample between 500 or 1,000 for state polls; and 1,000 or 2,000 for national polls, says Reineke.

“For presidential polls, I am suspect of any poll with survey samples of much less than 1,000 people,” agrees Schultz. “They probably need about 1,200 to 1,500 people to be accurate, especially if one wants to tap into swing voters or the views of particular subgroups.”

Also, ignore any poll that does not have a confidence level of at least 95 percent, says Schultz. Some polls have confidence levels of only 90 percent, which means they are only 90 percent confident that responses were within their margin of error. In other words, 10 percent of the time they are not sure if sample answers were indicative of the true population (not good).

Furthermore, polls are only as good as the underlying assumptions that go into them, continues Schultz. For example, a poll that lists 50 percent of those who responded as Democrats is skewed in terms of over-representing Democrats.

That’s why samples are sometimes weighted to better represent the population of interest, says Reineke. For example, if African-American males ages 18-35 are 1 percent of the sample, but 2 percent of the population, a pollster might mathematically adjust the sample so that responses of individuals in that demographic actually count as two responses each, thus better reflecting the population.

Regardless, pollsters should report their sample size and their margin of error, and provide information about how they sampled so that others can evaluate their claims and methods, Reineke stresses.


Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.