Talking Politics & Message Testing with Glover Park Group’s Adam Slater


SlaterAdam Slater doesn’t mind talking politics; it’s one of the many things his job entails.  Adam—now a director in the Research Division at DC–based The Glover Park Group (GPG)—was the director of research operations at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR) where he handled a boatload of political and public opinion research for the firm and for clients such as Democracy Corps. Adam’s background in government and political campaign consulting goes back more than 10 years. Here at Dialsmith, we got to know Adam through the dial testing work we did with him and GQR annually for the State of the Union Address and for high stakes political events such as the presidential debates.

Since the political season is upon us—albeit the mid-term election season—we figured the time was right to tap Adam for his insights on what’s new on the political message testing front and how research in this area has changed since he first got into it a decade ago.

Q: Give us some background on the type of research you and Glover Park Group focus on?

Adam: GPG’s Research group provides the foundation for message development, audience segmentation, brand management, and ongoing strategic insights for clients. We use a suite of industry-leading research methods, both opinion and digital analytics, ranging from national to local, online and more traditional phone or in-person research, highly targeted, in-depth interviews with key decision makers, dial testing and even mall intercepts. The Research group provides clarity, strategic direction and creative input to keep clients relevant, effective and successful.

Q: You’ve been involved in political message testing for some time. What type of results from this type of testing proves to be the most useful and how are those results used?

Adam: Over the past 20 years or so, organizations and corporations have behaved a lot like political campaigns when it comes to message testing and rebranding efforts.  It’s been mainly due to the success of political campaigns and how they have been able to hone their candidate’s message, adapt quickly and find messages that resonate best with voters to move public opinion and win campaigns. These are the types of message tests that GPG performs for its clients to best position them to influence the discussion inside and outside Washington.

Q: How has political message testing evolved? What role has technology played in these changes?

Adam: The changes in political message testing over the years have been really interesting to follow.  Mainly changes have come from new technology and better understanding of public opinion research methodologies. Public opinion research has moved from mailing lists of magazine subscriptions to telephone sample frames and now, much of the research is conducted online.  Many pollsters still utilize telephone surveys for the majority of their message testing, often because of the geographical impediments to their research, or concern with online sample coverage.

In any event, one key technological advancement has been that of dial testing as a way to test messages.  I have used dial testing in traditional, in-person focus groups, online surveys and focus groups, as well as for live or recorded events.  Unlike other testing methods, dial testing allows for a second-by-second read on how your message might work for a speech, a debate, or a television or radio ad.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you and your clients face in regards to conducting message testing?

Adam: A big challenge is understanding what messages influence and how to talk to those who are influencing the discussions. We spend a lot of our time evaluating the types of people we talk to, especially as we try to advance our clients’ objectives in the digital age.  Technology has been a mixed blessing for researchers. We have insisted on standard practices to better track behavioral and attitudinal differences; however, we are being pushed to adapt new methods and standard practices to increase quality research in this new digital era.  It’s a tricky tightrope to walk.

Q: You mentioned dial testing; can you provide more detail on how you use it and the value it brings to your clients?

Adam: Dial testing can really bring a lot to the research process.  Whether it’s qualitative research or quantitative, the dials bring an extra richness to understand in real-time which messages are working and which are not.  It’s seamless for the respondent and provides researchers with immediate feedback on what their candidate or organization needs to do to win—whether that’s at the ballot box or in the boardroom.

Q: Any memorable research stories that you can talk about?

Adam: I have been doing dial testing since 2008 and have utilized the technology mainly for key live political events, including Presidents Bush and Obama State of the Union addresses and the Presidential Debates for the 2008 and 2012 elections.  For each of those events, we recruited 40 – 50 independent voters in various swing states and used the dials to measure their opinion of what the President and their debate counterpart were saying and how their messages were performing.

There are many stories as result of those projects but, one thing I will note is the immense stress that is part of the nature of testing live events.  We always asked questions before and after the speeches to test the audience’s movement, so if your respondents are late, the President or the debate moderator will not wait for you to test your metrics. That means you have to have a well-oiled operation to master the logistics and get the most out of the research. On this front, I’ve always appreciated the support we’ve received from Dialsmith in ensuring the success of these events.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve heard and/or have told a client about message testing?

Adam: Sometimes you can devise what you think will be a very clever, convincing message frame and then it flops. Other times, what you are sure won’t work, actually does. You have to leave presumptions at the door and allow the message testing to do its work.  Listen to your respondents and read the research with an open mind and willingness to be wrong.

Also, the elements of a campaign—be it political or corporate—may change over time, so you need to be open to reinventing your message and changing course to adapt to new events on the ground. Even when your messages seem to be working, you may be able to grow even more support by changing course.

Great insights from Adam! If you’d like to connect with Adam or get his take on the events and news around this political season, you can do so on Twitter or LinkedIn. You can learn more about the interesting work that GPG by visiting their website. And, of course, if you’re thinking of doing your own dial testing project, you can find out more here.