Poll position: surveys become automatic for the people
AUTOMATED phone polling is the new kid on the block when it comes to surveying voter and consumer attitudes, and not without controversy.
But after five years of using the method, Brisbane-based firm ReachTEL has built an impressive record, especially when it comes to polling individual electorates.
Used by political parties, unions, corporations, media companies and industry groups, ReachTEL uses automated voice broadcast technology to collect poll responses.
Sometimes dubbed ''robopolls'', those people called by the company will hear an automated message inviting them to participate in the survey but also offering them the option to opt out and never be polled again by the firm.
Like traditional pollsters, ReachTEL uses Australian Bureau of Statistics and census data to identify people in the targeted electorate and then weights the responses to match its age and gender profile of the seat.
Traditional pollsters who use person-to-person calls criticise the method because it relies on respondents honestly revealing their age and gender.
James Stewart, the operations manager of ReachTEL, argues that those surveyed understand they are talking to an automated service and aren't pressured into giving a ''popular'' answer should they wish to answer otherwise.
He says that ReachTEL's research indicates that response rates are generally the same, and sometimes superior, to polling undertaken by longer established companies that use call centre operators. ''People feel less pressure and find it an engaging medium,'' he said.
The method is fast. The 2500 respondents polled for Fairfax Media in four western Sydney seats were gathered within a couple of hours on Thursday evening. Traditional polling take days to achieve a similar sample size.
Polling more than 600 people in each of the Labor-held seats of Werriwa, McMahon, Blaxland and Chifley, the margin of error is slightly less than 4 per cent.
ReachTEL accurately called the closely contested Melbourne state by-election and the Sydney state by-election won by independent Alex Greenwich last year. It was also closest to predicting the huge loss of the Bligh government in Queensland's recent state election.