I’m somewhat nostalgic now about a time, a few years ago, when every academic researcher and journalist we talked to dismissed CivicScience and our data collection methodology as too radical for publication. Most reporters would thumb their nose at any research done on the web, while indiscriminately citing phone-derived poll numbers that all-too-often proved to be wrong. Even scientists and newspaper editors I knew personally wouldn’t use our stuff, for fear of backlash from their peers.
I’d tell our team, “Who cares what journalists and researchers think?” The gazillion-dollar companies who base huge decisions on our data don’t obsess about romantic (and extinct) notions like “probability sampling.” They only care if our findings are thoughtful, accurate, and actionable. As long as clients keep buying – and renewing – that’s all the validation we need, right?
But I have a confession to make. I absolutely do care what researchers and serious journalists think of our work. I always have. No, it’s not because I enjoy seeing our name in print (although I do). It’s because we have access to so much great information that can benefit everyone – not just the mega companies who can afford to buy our service. Nearly everyday, we uncover insights that turn age-old truisms about things like human happiness, friendship, and aging upside down. On other days, we find that humanity’s progress toward enlightenment around race or gender equality isn’t as advanced as many would hope. But without buy-in from the academic and journalistic community, the mouthpiece for our information is limited to the 37 people who read our blog and the hundreds of fake accounts who follow us on Twitter.
And that’s why I was elated this past weekend to find a story in the New York Times – written by two academic researchers – where our data has center stage. Many months ago, we were invited to collaborate with Dr. Aaron “Ronnie” Chatterji and Dr. Michael Toffel on a paper they were writing about CEO social activism and its effect on company performance. It’s not the first time we broke the barrier of methodological skepticism. No, that happened a few years ago and many times since. (Although the combo of academic-stamped research appearing in the most revered newspaper in the country might be a first).
What excited me most about Ronnie and Mark’s work was its content and implication. They found, through a study of thousands of U.S consumers, that CEOs (and the companies they captain) have significant commercial incentive to support social causes they believe in. Consumers, it turns out, are much more likely to reward a company for an advocacy position they agree with than they are to punish a company for a stance they don’t agree with. In other words (Ronnie and Mark don’t take this extra leap but I will), deep down inside, beneath all of our political divisions and cultural tribalism, most of us prefer companies and leaders who fight for something over those who fight for nothing. How awesome is that?
If we had simply run our own study on the same topic and published it on our blog or LinkedIn page, it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference. I’m pretty sure I’m the only CEO who reads the stuff I write. But when people of Dr. Chatterji and Dr. Toffel’s caliber write it and the NY Times broadcasts it, who knows where it can lead. Maybe just one more CEO will be emboldened to get off the sidelines and connect with their customers on something other than discounts or product launches. Maybe one more company will do some soul-searching about its potential to impact the world in a positive way. Let’s hope.
And, maybe one more researcher or one more journalist will open their minds to the treasure trove of useful data being generated in evermore innovative ways. We have lots more to give.