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Heard of floating voters? Here's why floating consumers could make the difference for marketers

By Stephan Shakespeare

February 11, 2013 | 6 min read

Who are 'floating' consumers and why should you be concerned about them? YouGov chief executive Stephan Shakespeare explains why finding this niche group could massively improve the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns

Those of us interested in politics have long understood the importance of ‘floating’ voters – that small but crucial group who change their votes from one election to the next. Understanding exactly who they are and what drives them is vital for parties and politicians seeking election. Whether it’s “Essex man” or “Worcester woman,” parties and the media try to home in on the small numbers of people who determine an election result.

As with politics so for business. Marketing budgets are aimed at getting consumers to do something differently – whether it’s making them aware of a brand, changing their views on it, or altering their behaviours towards it. But only a small proportion of consumers are in the market to do something differently. Identifying these ‘floating’ consumers – how to target them and what messages work with them – can massively improve marketing effectiveness and return on investment.

Historically, identifying ‘floating’ consumers hasn’t been easy. Traditional survey methods have fallen down because often respondents don’t accurately remember things. False recall is a well-documented problem in political polling. Given remembering something as seemingly important as who you voted for is often difficult, imagine how much harder it is to recall how you previously viewed a washing powder, a cereal brand or a car manufacturer.

However, research has changed and it is now possible to identify ‘floating’ consumers. This is because connected, dynamic panel data now means we can speak to the same people before and after an event – whether it’s marketing activity or a crisis – and know how specific consumers feel and think about a brand.

Toyota is a good case study for this. We followed how consumers changed their views on the brand around the car manufacturer’s product recall last year. By doing this we worked out which people changed their perceptions of the brand, what that meant for the company and what Toyota should do about it.

Perception hit

We can see from BrandIndex that perceptions of Toyota fell after the recall. The public’s general impression of the brand, which had been at +29 before the crisis, fell as low as +15 before slowly recovering to +20 by the end of the year.

Daily tracking shows that perception of Toyota fell, but it’s clear that the company needed to find out which people had moved away from being ‘positive’ about the brand so it could win them back. To do this, we questioned those who had been positive about Toyota prior to the recall and asked them the same questions again, working out which ones had changed their minds.False recallOur first finding backed up the hypothesis that people often can’t remember changing their mind. Of those who used to be positive but no longer were, only 56 per cent said their views had become more negative. The remainder believed that they had always been negative towards Toyota, forgetting that they’d changed their minds over the previous months.
TargetingThe next conclusion was more positive for Toyota. People who owned the cars were significantly more likely to have maintained a positive opinion of the brand; 92 per cent remained positive compared to 70 per cent of those who owned other brands and 64% of those that didn’t own a car. Just 1 of the 151 individual Toyota owners questioned actually switched to having a negative view of the brand.
Toyota’s perception problems were with potential buyers rather than current owners. When we looked at exactly who changed their mind a pretty clear pattern emerged, albeit from a small sample size. The recall was a large news story and we see immediately that those who became negative were those who interact with news – 90 per cent watched a news programme in the day before we spoke to them and 59 per cent read a broadsheet paper (compared to 40 per cent for the total sample). The message for Toyota was clear: if it wanted to respond through marketing its media buy should be in broadsheet newspapers and during TV news programmes.
These people were consistent about why they changed their views on Toyota. The verbatim comments below from people who were positive but became negative show there was a clear loss of confidence in Toyota’s reliability.• “Having product recalls all over the world recently doesn't inspire confidence in the brand.”• “Regularly using inferior manufacturers for various components, and having to call cars in to correct them - destroying their previously sound image altogether”• “They've had lots of bad press lately concerning recalls for defects and safety issues.” MessagingBy assessing the connected dynamic data around the car recall we can clearly see who the ‘floating’ consumers are and what issues need to be addressed to bring them back on side.Current customers have remained positive and the key for Toyota is rebuilding confidence among the lost ‘positives’ that have genuinely changed their minds. One option is to utilise the fact that Toyota drivers rave about the very thing potential customers are most negative about:• “Excellent build quality and very reliable cars.”• “Good personal experience with the brand through personal use of their vehicles.”• “Have owned a Toyota for the last three years. This is the first Toyota I have owned and it is the best vehicle I have had in terms of price, quality, comfort and performance.”While the actual messaging has to be tested among those who have become negative, a good starting point could be to have a concentrated marketing campaign around news programming and broadsheet papers extolling the positive sentiments of current Toyota drivers. As we have seen, ‘floating’ consumers can be a very small, niche group. However, they can wield immense influence and accurately identifying and targeting them with a bespoke message can be the difference between success and failure for a brand.


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