Chief Research Officer, SurveyMonkey
Industry: Public-opinion research
Key previous position: Washington Post pollster
Education: Johns Hopkins; U of California, Berkeley
Notable fact: Also worked on the polling teams at ABC and Pew
When Jon Cohen first got into public-opinion research, landline polling was everything.
But over the past 20 years, including his last six as chief research officer at online-polling company SurveyMonkey, Cohen has witnessed—and often been on the forefront in responding to—a sea change in polling spurred by rapid technological advances and societal shifts.
Thanks to methodological challenges and charges of bias, online polling was once viewed with an upturned nose. In recent years, however, it’s grown up, as a critical mass of people are now accessible online. In fact, online polling has surged as phone polls—once at the core of the industry—have seen plummeting response rates and skyrocketing costs. Some 2 million people take a SurveyMonkey poll every week. For Cohen, it’s hard to imagine that the telephone-only poll will survive much longer.
As SurveyMonkey reaches millions online, whether through polling panels or more experimental river samples (where massive sample sizes provide intriguing snapshots of public opinion), Cohen and his team aim to share their trove of data and their insights with the broader industry. By ironing out and improving the statistical hurdles of online surveys, pollsters able to dive deeper on the trends that polls are intended to capture.
The biggest challenge, Cohen says, is communicating the uncertainty present in polling. There is intense interest in polling outcomes, which can influence fundraising or even access to a debate stage, but pollsters aren’t handicappers. Though politicians and the public often demand one number to understand a race, Cohen said the industry must strive to explain the possibilities in its data. As a committee member for the American Association for Public Opinion Research, Cohen is working to develop language to do just that.
“I’m more optimistic today that we have the tools to meet those challenges,” Cohen said. “I’m increasingly focused on the communication challenges that we have and how we start to organize as an industry. … We’re all out on a limb, and you want to know how sturdy the limb is.”