It is believed that all opinion research companies have a single common root in the Gallup Poll. The phenomenon actually has a name — the Research Tree.
Princeton Survey Research Associates is no different, and doesn’t try to be. The company was founded in 1989 by Andrew Kohut, one-time editor of the Gallup Poll. In 1993 Larry Hugick, Kohut’s successor at Gallup, joined PSRA, to work with his old boss and PSRA co-founder Diane Colasanto. A few years later, Kohut and Colasanto sold the company to Hugick and two other employees.
PSRA moved from Commons Way on November 1.
Public polling has become a sophisticated and complex craft since its founding in Princeton in 1935, when George Gallup set out to study elections. These days roughly 85 percent of the industry is devoted to consumer marketing and product research. “We’re pretty much in the other 15 percent,” says Hugick. PSRA does minimal consumer polling, concentrating mostly on social science, politics, and public issues such as health.
When Hugick started at Gallup back in the late 1970s companies typically hired opinion researchers for end-to-end service. A company like Gallup would design a survey, collect data, add up the information, and often even help present it.
Few clients want that kind of service anymore, Hugick says. Typically they want technical help — designing a survey and figuring out the best way to implement it. “Say you’re doing a survey of racial attitudes,” Hugick says. “You would need to make sure you get enough African-Americans and enough Latinos.”
With seven on staff in Princeton and another eight in Washington, PSRA is a relatively small branch on the Research Tree. Still, the firm does considerable work with the Pew Research Center, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Newsweek magazine. Hugick himself brought the Newsweek account with him from the Times Mirror Center in D.C. — predecessor to Pew and also run by Andrew Kohut. Hugick left Gallup for Times Mirror, where he worked with Newsweek starting in 1989.
Hugick graduated with a bachelors in English from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania in 1970 and took a job in Gallup’s mail room back when the firm still conducted in-person interviews and calculated punch cards. He worked his way up to the research staff just in time to see the industry’s first great conversion, from in-person to telephone interviews in the late 980s. By decade’s end he was managing editor of the Gallup Poll, before following Kohut to the Times Mirror Center.
Hugick likes the size and focus of PSRA the way it is. “We’re not big,” he says. “We have specialized in an area of expertise.”
Unlike almost every other opinion research company out there, PSRA doesn’t concern itself with consumer research. It has conducted focus groups, Hugick says, but those have been for agencies like the Better Business Bureau, not a company trying to find out how people feel about its line of lawnmowers.
PSRA does its data collection mostly through Princeton Data Source, a company it owns in Virginia. Princeton Data Source conducts telephone and Internet surveys, but foregoes the old-school method of in-person surveys. Online surveys pose challenges not limited to simply verifying the identity of the taker, and PSRA does not do general web surveys. Such surveys, Hugick says, will draw only those interested in taking them, rather than the necessary broad, random sample.
They also don’t get people who are not online. PSRA’s web surveys are targeted to a specific professional group, such as doctors, foreign policy leaders, or corporate executives — mainly because they enable the takers to respond on their own schedules. Typically, Hugick says, such surveys are aimed at a specific issue that could only be answered by a select group. These surveys are often explained in a snail mail letter containing a link and a pass code.
Telephone surveys are more reliable but not as easy as they used to be. Cell phones have added a new — and often costly — layer. With roughly 20 percent of adults now living without a home landline, cell phone surveys are increasingly common. But surveyors must strike a balance. Most people over 50 still have a landline, and most over 60 have no cell phones. A mix, therefore, is needed to find a good cross-section, unless the survey is designed with a specific age group in mind.
Cell phone calling also presents three other problems, Hugick says. First, they’re expensive to make because callers are not allowed to use auto-dialers to make cell phone calls, meaning those have to be done by people who need to be paid.
And the expense is usually shared by the person being called, so beyond the heavier labor costs, research companies often have to reimburse someone answering a cell phone. Second, roughly a third of cell phones belong to kids, who cannot be interviewed. Third, you can’t interview someone who is driving.
Despite the high-tech nature of it all, Hugick says the only way to get through the problems is to just to keep “slogging through it.”
“Eventually all this technology is going to blend,” he says. “We’re certainly not going back to in-person interviews. The culture is just too different.”
Princeton Survey Research Associates International LLC, 600 Alexander Road, Suite 2-2, Princeton 08540; 609-924-9204; fax, 609-924-7499. Larry Hugick, chairman