Statistics and facts are everywhere, and they are essential to try and make sense of global issues as well as effectively growing businesses. But can we trust them? In this article, we focus on the world of market research and talk to Torbjörn Sjöström, CEO of Novus and winner of Business Worldwide’s ‘Media/Communications Industry CEO of the Year Europe Award,’ about why good quality research matters.

The 2015 UK General Election produced a shock result for pollsters who had predicted that the two leading parties, Labour, and Conservative, had registered similar levels of support from voters. As it turned out, the Conservatives won outright. The pollsters were in the dock, and an inquiry was launched into why they had got it so wrong. The inquiry, led by Professor Patrick Sturgis of Southampton University, found that the sampling methods used by pollsters were not representative. He also suggested that pollsters may have skewed their findings to reflect other polling company results.

The Ignorance Project, a study set up by the Gapminder Foundation, led by Professor Hans Rosling and conducted by Novus, aimed to explore what the public knows and doesn’t know about global issues in order to advise on developing teaching materials. The Project found that basic knowledge around global statistical trends had not reached a wide audience, or may even seem counterintuitive to people. They have so far conducted a study in the UK, USA, Germany, Sweden, Norway and South Africa. The study is ongoing with the first results published in 2013.

These two examples show why research integrity, facts, and evidence matter, according to the Swedish company Novus. Novus does market research with clients in Sweden, the Nordic countries, and the world. They work with a diverse clientele, ranging from small to big companies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), unions, to political parties. Their business is research, and for Novus, research is about finding facts and assessing public opinion. Their aim is not just to do thorough research but promote evidence as a social good.

We asked the CEO of Novus, Torbjörn Sjöström, about the work of Novus and why opinion and evidence are so important.

Torbjörn, why does public opinion matter?

Public opinion influences everything, from who gets elected to what people buy, whether people will give to charities or support particular organisations. We ask why they make these choices. That is valuable information.

To understand public opinion you first have to appreciate how it is formed.  Most people know what they know from school or family. They don’t necessarily do ongoing learning or in-depth reading around an issue. People then get their opinions from the people they know, politicians, and the media. The media has become a particularly dominant opinion forming force, and it frames knowledge in very particular ways. The rise of digital media over print – and this has been widely talked about – exacerbates those trends, and we are perhaps witnessing a decline in quality and a lack of complexity in opinions.

Understanding how opinions are formed will also allow you insight into how opinion will evolve, and you can make practical use of this knowledge.

How does Novus go about researching public opinion?

Novus aims to answer three questions about public opinion, and these are pretty much universal for any of our clients:

What (do people think about the issue/brand/organisation)?
Why (do people hold these opinions)?

How (can we use this knowledge in our operation to get new customers/members/sell more – whatever the aim is)?

The scope of our research is to answer one or all of these questions. But you always need to start with the first one, which is what do people think about the issue/brand/organisation or whatever the problem is? Each of the questions build on the previous one, so to answer ‘how’ you need to know ‘what’ and ‘why.’

Our vision is to be the company you turn to in order to get the facts and to make our research central to your decision-making process. Of course, market research is a considerable financial investment, but research can help you to increase your market share. You make a transition from following the market to leading it.

Why has Novus been so successful – what is its formula?

Novus has a clear view of what we want to achieve, our role in the industry and how it should be perceived. The market from a global perspective is lowering quality to increase volume and trying to maintain margins. However, it is also unable to define the value of the product and the cost of production, which will not help businesses or organisations long-term. Novus generates business value to our customers, and that requires quality, accurate information. Creating a value needs proper investment. Lowering quality and in turn creating inaccurate information will lead to faulty market decisions, which is why I think most of the UK election polls weren’t accurate enough. The pollsters started to cut corners because the cost of producing proper polls was way above the money they earned from the media, which was the customer.

What led you as CEO to want to lead Novus?

It’s a sad story actually. My father, Alf Sjöström, founded this company. He was an extremely successful entrepreneur in Sweden and one of our greatest market researchers. He owned and built Gallup in Sweden from scratch, started Sweden’s first call centre and developed that into a multinational company covering the Nordics and the Baltics.

I have a Masters in Software Engineering and have been a hard working entrepreneur. My previous role was establishing a telephone company in Sweden. I wasn’t planning to follow my father in the market research industry, although I did support him by being on the Board of Directors in his companies. Then he suddenly passed away, far too young, and we could not find a suitable CEO for Novus, so I sold my business and took on this role five years ago. I was a minority owner in my business, and our family was a majority owner in Novus, so the decision was not easy but was one that was needed.

Having said that, I have been in the market research industry since I was seven and I worked nights and holidays in it for about twenty years, so the business was not new to me. I used my knowledge about building companies and applied it to Novus, but I could not do it without our staff, who are probably the most experienced in Sweden.

What does the future hold for Novus?

The challenge is to keep going against the stream and educate the public about what proper research is. We want to provide qualified knowledge, not just delivering numbers as part of a report. Public perception of the research business defines us, just like the perception of the world defines politics. We are on the right track, and we will continue to define the market and provide our customers with valuable insights based on facts from proper research. Changing how the world goes about understanding itself is a valuable goal and a public good.