Intelligence: Want to Know What People are Thinking? Try a Bar Stool Survey

Credit where credit’s due. One of the lasting lessons for me of my experience at the big agency I once worked for was a simple technique for gathering quick intelligence on the public’s attitude on an issue, a company, a brand or a product. It’s called the “Bar Stool Survey.”

As the name implies, it’s informal, impromptu and easy to do.  Though, you don’t need to be literally sitting on a bar stool, or even in a bar to do it. You could go to a park, a coffee shop, a diner, or anywhere that people gather.

Let’s say you have an issue you need to tackle through public relations. Maybe it’s a company’s plan to expand its manufacturing operations, or the siting of a new water treatment plant. Perhaps it’s the launch of a new community outreach campaign, or a series of public meetings on environmental matters.

You think you know what the public thinks about all of the related issues, but you can never be too sure. And even if you know generally where people think, you don’t know which messages will resonate most strongly and in what contexts.

Under more conventional circumstances, you may want to conduct surveys, online or by phone. Or, you may want to conduct focus groups.  But there’s no time or budget for that. What do you do?

Enter the Bar Stool Survey

Using the name as our example, you could send a PR team member or two into some local bars in the town that will be the hub for communicating to your target audiences. Or you could go to the kinds of venues where the demographics most accurately reflect the audiences you’re trying to reach.

Keep in mind, you have to pick the right public relations team members. They should be outgoing and proficient at striking up quick conversations with strangers and getting to the heart of the matter without crossing the lines of ethics or professionalism.

In that spirit, it would be important not to misrepresent yourself or your intentions. Mention from the outset that you are a public relations professional, and without violating any confidences or revealing proprietary information such as client names or the specifics of the project, tell your newfound acquaintance you are working on something and are curious about some things.  The conversation should be natural. It should never be forced.

To be sure, this is very situational, depending on the nature of the assignment. Your conversations are intended to help you better understand what other people are thinking and nothing more. They should in no way risk creating confusion or problems. You should not risk feeding the rumor mill or doing anything unethical. If there is any risk of this, the bar stool survey is not the right approach.

Still, if handled in good faith, professionally and ethically, your PR team can go out into the community to find out what people are thinking about particular issues just by talking to and listening to them.

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