On the eve of this year's general election, nobody seemed sure who would emerge as Prime Minister. One thing almost every commentator did seem sure of, though, was that it would be close. Poll after poll showed Ed Miliband and David Cameron locked in an extremely tight battle that seemed certain to produce a hung parliament.
The reality, of course, was very different. Though Cameron’s Conservative majority was slight, Miliband’s Labour slumped back to even fewer seats than Gordon Brown managed to hold onto in 2010.
For YouGov, arguably Britain’s best known polling company, this was quite the reputational blow. If they could make such a hash of the election how could they be trusted to carry out market research, the bread and butter work that keeps the money flowing in?
That doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact thus far though. The pollster's revenues were up 13% to £76.1m in the year to July 31, and adjusted pre-tax profits were up 19% to £9.1m. Of course most of that year’s revenues came before the election in May, but its results were still ahead of expectations, and chairman Roger Parry said the first two months of the current trading year have been ‘robust’.
It probably helps that YouGov’s tentacles reach far beyond Westminster. The US is its largest market, representing around one third of all revenues, and its operations in the Middle East, France and the Asia-Pacific region are all growing well. But even in the UK, publicity generated by the Scottish independence referendum and ahead of the general election helped boost revenues by 18%. The forthcoming EU referendum should help in that regard as well.
And to be fair, the election screw-up wasn’t just confined to YouGov. In the run-up to May 6th, not a single poll had suggested the Conservatives would grab the 6.5% lead they eventually achieved.
‘Although political polling is only a small part of YouGov’s business, it is a high profile element and rightly gets a lot of attention particularly when the polls prove to be out of line with the election results, as they were in the 2015 General Election in the UK,’ said Parry. ‘This was a reminder to the entire industry that we must treat each result as an opportunity to learn and to adapt our methodology.’
This year’s election could have been a turning point for the data industry. Their failure to see the Conservative victory clearly showed that even vast quantities of data are not infallible. But it seems the business world is still insatiably hungry for ‘customer insights’, so YouGov seems to have had a lucky escape.