Advocacy Polling, Research and Focus Groups

by Sophie Thurber (She/Her)


Advocacy Polling: Do Your Homework and Research 

Advocacy polling is an important foundation for campaigns that are, more often than not, a long haul. They require long-term planning and commitment, and ideally, they have the benefit of staff that has extensive knowledge and policy experience in a particular issue area. That deep knowledge of an issue is incredibly valuable, but it can also create some message obscurity if you’re not careful. In other words, there can be a huge temptation to explain, in minute detail, the many nuances of the issue you’re working on, but that detail (counter-intuitive as it may be) can often be a turnoff for your average supporter.

In these types of advocacy campaigns, it’s really important to figure out the balance between detail and brevity, and to provide just enough information to move the people you’re trying to reach. In order to find that balance, I cannot overstate the importance of some input that comes from beyond the echo chamber of the advocacy world. If you’re mounting an advocacy campaign, and your budget allows for it, there’s no better investment than advocacy polling, research and focus groups.


Research is the foundation upon which you build polling and focus groups. Part of research is a “know thy enemy” approach – you need to know who your opposition is, what their likely strategy and tactics will be, and of course, what their resources look like. But especially in the realm of advocacy, I think it’s also important to do a deep dive into similar campaigns, both winning and losing, to see what they did right, what they got wrong, and how they ultimately won.

Some of this kind of research can be done in-house, and some of it may be worth contracting out. In the cases where you’re looking outside of your own team, it’s important to make sure you find a researcher you trust (do your research! I’ll be here all week), and make sure that all conclusions are backed up by firsthand documents and quality news articles.

Advocacy Campaign Polling

Unless you’ve somehow found yourself with an unlimited and never-ending cash flow, you simply cannot test everything. Any poll you field should have a goal in mind, and should be designed to give you insight into what pieces of your message will be effective in achieving your advocacy goals. Throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix generally won’t help to give your message clarity, so be conservative with your additions, and above all else, make sure everything that’s in there can be backed up with facts (I have seen more than one poll that tests a message that is way too far removed from the research from which it was derived and was thus unusable).

And of course, after your advocacy campaign polling is complete and you’re reading those top-lines, remember that not all support is equal. Hard support and soft support are two very different things. It’s easy to get excited when you see supporters at the 70% mark, but if 40% of that is made up of soft supporters, the numbers should give you pause. This is especially true if you’re pondering a ballot initiative (which you can read more about here).

Focus Groups

So you’ve got your research, you’ve got your advocacy polling, what next? Next comes the joy of interacting with people (or watching them from behind a two-way mirror, if that’s your thing). Focus groups allow you to test your messages with real-live people, which can help to give you some pretty valuable insight into which messages and methods of delivery are likely to be effective. It’s important to remember that focus groups are something to be layered on top of polling and research; they are not the foundation of your message.

When you are delving into the world of focus groups, it’s important to think about both demographics and geography. Say you’re running a campaign in Texas – if you only focus group people in Austin, it’s likely you’re not going to be able to effectively apply what you learn there to an audience in another, more conservative part of the state. You’d probably want to run a few different groups in multiple locations to really get an accurate cross-section of the people you’re trying to reach. 

Questions about advocacy polling & research? Ask them here.