This is an edited excerpt from a chapter in the book Research to Riche$: The Secret Rules of Successful Marketing by Jim Nelems, founder and retired CEO of Atlanta-based research firm Marketing Workshop. For more information about the book visit

Marketing research is often a catchall category whenever anyone is referring to collecting and reporting facts, opinions and attitudes. But just because someone calls something marketing research does not mean that it really is marketing research – or valid marketing research, which is the critical issue. 

Back in the early 2000s, it was common for TV stations to post two phone numbers on the screen and say dial this number if you are in favor of the question and that number if you are against it. In the course of an evening, they might have 23,000 people who call in and vote their opinion, usually a simple yes or no. And how can 23,000 answers be wrong? After all, most polls only survey 900 to 1,000 people or less.

In most cases, the 23,000 people are wrong, as far as projecting the data. Yes, there are 23,000 people who expressed their opinion (say, 18,000 said yes and 5,000 said no). But this is a self-selecting sample. 

When conducting a self-selecting sample, only those who feel strongly enough about the issue take the time and effort to call. And in virtually every case, the people who feel strongest are the ones responding. The best example of this goes back to the early days of call-in polls, where then-Alabama Governor George Wallace won every call-in poll ever conducted for president that year. Wallace had a lot of friends and supporters, but they did not represent a cross-section of the voting public. 

Many polling opportunities posted on the Internet and available to the casual Web surfer are not marketing research. Many organizations have simply replace...