Tuesday 5 July 2016 4:16 pm

After opinion polls got the EU referendum result wrong, is social media the future of polling?

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For years now, marketers have been trying to tap into consumer insight. Methods used include anything from planned focus groups and online surveys, to people standing on the high street with a clipboard and pen.

Understanding and capturing the thoughts and opinions of the public as well as the conversations that are happening in everyday life is vital for businesses and organisations.

Today, social media is the new word of mouth. It’s where conversations are happening, spontaneously and in real time. It therefore comes as no surprise that savvy marketers and communications experts are turning to the medium to glean insights.

Earlier this year, Jellyfish carried out research into the EU referendum using social media monitoring tool Brandwatch. We used the four official campaign hashtags to gauge public sentiment over a period of three months. The results showed that twice as many Twitter users were using the Leave hashtags compared to the Remain hashtags, suggesting greater support for the Leave campaign amongst users of the platform.

With a number of traditional opinion polls suggesting a Remain vote and an inaccurate prediction for the 2015 general election, it seems like a good time to explore the potential of social media polling.

Read more: Can we trust any of the EU referendum polls? 

From the current race for the next Conservative leader and the upcoming US presidential election, to the next winner of The X Factor, social media data can be used to provide insight into public sentiment. If used effectively, the benefits can be invaluable.

Take a political campaign for example. If a party uses social media to determine what issues are being talked about in any particular region, these insights can be used to inform the next steps within the campaign.

Traditional polls can be labour intensive and there are various factors that can lead to inconclusive results such as leading questions and demographical bias. With social media polling however, opinions are being gathered from every day, natural conversations that are happening in real time.

Of course there are limitations to social media polling too. For example, only 19 per cent of the UK population actively uses Twitter. Having said that, the appeal is fairly broad with the fastest growing demographic being 45+ males.

Read more: Polls at odds on outcome of June vote

We also have to take external influences into account. Just with traditional polling, an individual can change their opinion so it’s worth re-running the data periodically to get a more accurate view of sentiment and how it’s evolving. Also, social media tools use Natural Language Processing (NLP) to determine sentiment. This means that most tools aren’t able to determine irony and sarcasm, so a human eye is essential when analysing data.

Whatever the limitations, social media polling is fast becoming an essential method of gauging public opinion, due to the invaluable insights and opportunities that it provides. As social media continues to pervade our daily lives, we can only expect its popularity to grow.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.