Last week, we discussed the flaws with a random sampling approach when preparing for a school referendum. This week, we’ll address what random sampling misses.
What traditional survey companies miss is that not everyone’s influence is equal.
Research shows a small number of people in a community, roughly 10 percent, have a great deal of influence over what their friends and neighbors think. It follows that these same people also have a great deal of influence over how others vote.
Ed Keller, the author of the book The Influentials, notes, “One American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy. They are the Influentials”. He then documents the impact this small number of people have on the perceptions of others. Even if it is perfectly representative of the community, a random sample does not take this group into account. By not doing so, your school district will not only have a flaw in the predictive nature of your data, but you may also miss a great opportunity to guide your planning.
Finding the Golden Goose
Once you realize you must understand and target the influentials in the community, the emphasis on a successful initiative quickly shifts from “Does this small group of influential people exist?” to “Who are they?” and “What are they saying?”
Identifying the influential few within your school community can be done in several ways. Anecdotally, many of you reading this article could probably jot down a few names of folks that would fit within the group, but a more research-based and measured approach is a wise choice here.
It is important to note that this group of “influentials” is not necessarily the same group of “squeaky wheels” that are vocal at your school board meetings. These individuals, although they are active in their communities, are much more likely to talk to ten of their friends about an important issue than they are to speak out at a public meeting.
That is precisely why measuring their perceptions and garnering their support is so essential to your success.
Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the bestselling book The Tipping Point, shows clear and distinct differences between those he calls “Connectors” and those who are not.
“Sprinkled among every walk of life are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances. They are Connectors.”
There are several characteristics these influential people have in common, including community activism, volunteerism, leadership skills, computer skills, being well-informed, and inclusion in multiple organized groups across organizational types.
The school districts on the leading edge of educational improvement will be those that will measure the perceptions of their influentials and use their feedback to inform their plan. For this to happen, you need to accomplish two critical tasks: educate and ask them what they think.
By definition, influentials have well-developed opinions and will tell you what they think if you ask.
For educators, the first task, educating, should be more straightforward. But the second task, asking people what they think, is a problem if a random sampling method is deployed. Typically, this approach only reaches two to four percent of the community. With this strategy, you will miss most of your influentials.
A better approach is to give everyone in your community the opportunity to respond to the survey. An inclusive survey available to everyone in your community has a built-in bias toward active and influential people in community affairs. Researchers are just now waking up to the fact that – for the purposes of school districts – that is a good thing.
The influentials, by their nature, will rise to the task. Keller’s research shows this group of influential connectors is 56 percent more likely than the general population to express their opinions to public officials and 30 percent more likely than the general population to try to influence public policy with their views.
A survey that is available to everyone in your community will automatically be biased toward this select group. Fortunately, this group is also the group most likely to vote in a local election or referendum. More importantly, each of these survey respondents can affect the opinions of dozens of other community members who did not respond to your survey.
The real advantage of using an inclusive survey model is that you educate all your stakeholders about the issues.
Is this type of survey biased toward a select group of influential people?
Is it essential that these people are well-informed about the advantages of your initiative?
Yes, very important.
Why would you go through the trouble, time, and expense of surveying a small random sample of your community members, knowing that you are missing many of the influential people in your school district?
A better method is to create an inclusive survey that allows every member of your school community, including all the influentials, to not only tell you what they think but to learn about your issues.
At the end of the day, people are more likely to support a plan if they understand it and if they have a voice in creating it. Your constituents need the answers to three questions:
1. Where is my money going?
2. Why is that project needed?
3. Why is that project needed now?
While there is no guarantee that a referendum will pass or the school board’s financial tug-of-war will get easier, starting off on the right foot by conducting an inclusive survey, followed by a cohesive communication strategy to communicate the facts and results, will definitely increase the chances of success.
In the end, involving all of the influential opinion leaders of your community in the process may be the most crucial decision you make.
The School Perceptions Blog and Resource Center features the voices of our team members. This post was written by Bill Foster, President & Founder.