Here’s the Technology Behind Political & Public Policy Research

online dial testing for political research
Any successful political campaign starts with having a strong candidate. But, to be successful in today’s volatile political climate, campaigns need to be nimble with their message, and keep pace with the shifting moods of voters and the 24-hour news cycle. For this, campaigns need a crack research team that knows how to leverage research technology to get the decision-driving results they need.


Research technology is no different than any other technology in that it is constantly evolving. But one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the need for campaigns to get into the minds (and hearts) of voters. While there are several methods and technologies that campaigns have turned to help get their message right, dial testing—for more than three decades—has been a standard. Why dial testing? Because over the years, it’s proven effective at helping campaigns understand, at a richer and more granular level, voter sentiment and reaction to campaign messages, advertising, speeches, debate performances and so on.

As Dan Schill, author and professor of Communication Studies and Political Science at James Madison University, comments, “Dial testing plays a meaningful role through its ability to capture real-time, second-by-second responses… the data from the dials allow us to identify and rank which issues are making an impact on voters and pushing opinion in either a positive or negative direction.”


Online dial testing tools are not new to the scene—Dialsmith released Perception Analyzer Online (PA Online) in 2014—but increased demand for online/virtual methods of collecting real-time, moment-to-moment perceptions and sentiment on recorded messaging, advertisements, speeches, testimony, etc., has driven new innovations both in tools and in methods of pairing/integrating technologies. As result, Dialsmith’s online dial testing tools have evolved and adapted to meet the demand.


As we noted, conducting dial testing online is not new. What IS new is the ability to integrate “live” (i.e., essentially synchronous) online dial testing into online focus groups, essentially mirroring what you can do in in-person dial testing focus groups. Now, researchers have options: they can field an online dial test (asynchronous) in advance, assess results, and use those findings to guide their online focus group; OR they can conduct an online focus group with live (synchronous) dial testing segments where respondents can flow back-and-forth between focus group and dial testing sessions.

In the post-COVID-19 world, this integrated online focus group + synchronous dial testing approach has evolved quickly. Dialsmith now regularly conducts these groups for various types of research, including political and public policy research.

One key area that’s evolved is the process used to assess the technical capabilities of respondents and ensure that they are prepared to fully participate in the group. Respondent “tech checks” are now started from the moment recruitment begins and are completed early in the process to ensure that respondents have passed all technical requirements and are ready to go when the group goes live.

Another key area that’s evolved is security. As we’ve gotten more studies under our belt, we’ve learned that a standard, commercial level of security for online focus groups and online dial testing didn’t meeting the needs of many of our clients. So, we assessed several options, and invested in ZoomGov, a high-security platform designed to serve sensitive areas of the US Government. ZoomGov now serves as our core platform for all of our online focus groups.

Integrated online focus group + dial testing: view a walk-thru of how’s it’s done

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With dial testing, it’s hard to separate the methodology from the technology. You can’t do a dial test without the dials (or virtual dials) and the tech to gather and display the data from the dials. So, to thoroughly understand dial testing, the methodology, it’s important to understand dial testing, the technology.

Dial testing technology for capturing and analyzing in-the-moment responses and feedback in live research settings, such as focus groups, was introduced in the 1980s, gaining momentum as a way to gauge feedback on political messaging for Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign. The Perception Analyzer (Model I) was introduced in 1985 as one of the first technologies for collecting and reporting on continuous audience response.

Perception Analyzer - history of dial testing technology

The Perception Analyzer is a portable research technology system, consisting of three components: dials, console and software. Dial testing groups range in size from 10 – 500 although the system has been used with IDIs as well. Respondents hold the dial and turn a tear-drop-shaped knob to the left or right to indicate how they are feeling at a specific moment in response to various forms of test stimuli (video, audio, presentations, speeches, ads, etc.).

Dial testing results explained

The degree to which they turn the knob indicates a range of intensity on a specific sentiment; such as like/dislike or agree/ disagree. The dials wirelessly communicate with a console that captures the real-time position of every respondent dial at every second. Results can then be viewed in real-time during the session. At the end of the session, data are compiled and delivered as charts, cross-tabs, video/audio overlays and raw data files.

The Perception Analyzer hardware and software have gone through numerous iterations and upgrades since its initial release. The current version, Model V, retains the teardrop shaped dial but also includes a more modern analog screen and buttons that can be used to confirm a response or indicate a moment of inflection.


In 2014, Dialsmith introduced Perception Analyzer Online (PA Online), an online research technology tool for capturing in-the-moment feedback for testing recorded media. Instead of a physical dial, respondents provide continuous feedback using an on-screen slider that respondents can control with their mouse (on a PC or laptop) or with a finger swipe (on a tablet). Similar to the traditional dials, the system polls the slider position every second and records the data upon completion of the exercise. Aggregated results are displayed as lines overlaid on top of the media. Conducting dial testing online allows for a larger and geographically dispersed sample group as well as the ability to do multiple studies in a short period of time. Through advancements in the technology, clients can now test longer forms of media, including full debates, speeches, even full-length infomercials and television shows.

Online dial testing

A main differences between the traditional in-person dials and PA Online, is that online dial testing only supports asynchronous sessions whereas the in-person dials support both synchronous and asynchronous. In other words, respondents using the online dials are not all viewing the stimuli and responding at the same time. But that’s not to say that the online dials can’t be used with other synchronous online research tools. For example, we’ve had clients pair PA Online with online focus groups. In this scenario, respondents will complete their online dial test at a pre-determined time and then be invited into the focus group session all at the same time. Due to the real-time nature of the dial results, researchers can view the dial data prior to starting the focus group session, giving researchers the opportunity to. Additionally, online dial testing has been paired with other online research platforms, including Qualtrics surveys and market research online communities.


We have a number of helpful resources if you want to dig deeper into the dial testing technology and its advantages – see the list below. Of course, we’re also always happy to talk if you have specific questions or want to assess if the dial testing tech can help you with an upcoming project or study. If that’s the case, feel free to reach out.


Online Qual Research one-pager

Moment-to-Moment Research Playbook

Ten Ways Dial Testing Will Improve Your Research

Dial Testing 101