The 'future of polling' on Microsoft's Election 2012 Xbox Live hub

Microsoft's Election 2012 hub on Xbox Live launched in late August, and since then, the company has been using it to collect data. That data, in aggregate and in specific subsets, will power "the future of polling" as well as "the future of TV," said Jose Pinero, senior director of marketing and public relations for Microsoft, in a phone interview with Polygon conducted yesterday.

The company also wants to use the data to engage with and galvanize its Xbox Live user base in an unprecedented way: to "establish a two-way dialogue" and "get more people involved in the civic process," said Pinero. Through polling conducted daily and during the upcoming campaign debates, Microsoft seeks to provide Xbox Live users with instant interaction between them, their fellow Xbox Live members, and the 2012 election, and educate those users about the issues at stake in this campaign so they can vote on November 6th as informed citizens.

Every day at midnight PT, Microsoft updates the Election 2012 hub with a new daily poll. The first time someone begins answering a poll, they're asked a series of demographic questions: things like their age and whether they've voted in previous elections. The answers allow Microsoft to categorize the poll participants, and — here's the important part — track their responses to future polls.

According to David Rothschild, Ph.D., an economist at Microsoft Research, the hub's polls have seen about 10,000 daily users so far, many of whom are repeat respondents. "We're gonna get to see how these users change over time," said Rothschild, and that's where the analytic value of the hub becomes apparent. The demographic questions not only allow Microsoft to track responses over time; they also allow pollsters to pull out subsets of the respondents that may be more representative of Americans than the overall Xbox Live user base.

In addition, the tracking is helped by the nature of the polls: each daily poll asks a set of related questions focusing on a particular issue, like foreign policy or the economy. For example, the polls to this point have found "overwhelming support" from swing voters for raising taxes on American households making more than $250,000 per year, according to Rothschild. The respondents will likely have more to say after the debates concerning those respective topics, and Microsoft can see whether their opinions change based on Barack Obama's and Mitt Romney's performances.

Microsoft is well aware that its poll respondents may not be representative of America as a whole. For example, said Rothschild, "We know we're not getting a crazy amount of over-65-year-old women." But he also pointed out that the "Xbox is increasingly being used as an entertainment system for the whole family," and said Microsoft's data shows a "fairly even mix between Romney and Obama supporters" on Xbox Live.

The "interactive TV" part of the election hub equation will come to life this month in the three presidential debates and the vice presidential debate, which will all be streamed to Xbox 360 owners through the Live Event Player app. YouGov, a market research firm, will conduct live polling during the debates, asking viewers on Xbox Live questions based on the content of the debates. Users can even submit questions on Twitter via the #XboxPoll hashtag. YouGov has the ability to push a question regarding any turn of the debate to Xbox Live viewers with very little delay, an up-to-the-minute interaction with users that Pinero said "speaks to the power of the platform and how nimble it is."

Those interactions won't end with the debates or the polls. The day after a debate, users will be able to access an infographic on Microsoft's election hub website containing a summary of the Xbox Live audience's responses to the questions YouGov asked during the debate. Shortly afterward, they'll be able to peruse a full breakdown of the polling data, just as with a poll from companies like Gallup or Pew Research.

It's clear that Microsoft and YouGov are taking this seriously. We asked Rothschild about how scientific these polls are, and he acknowledged that some polls will speak more powerfully about Xbox Live users in particular and less accurately about general voters. He promised that whatever the case, the companies will be "really transparent about the data we're providing out there."

Microsoft and YouGov are going to such lengths of statistical legitimacy because they also want to be taken seriously. Rothschild, who did his doctoral thesis on non-representative groups in polls and has published several papers on polling, told Polygon that he believes this venture is "breaking the mold" and marks "the forefront of polling, moving forward." The idea is for it to be an engaging, fun experience for users, while also providing useful data that can be analyzed in a scientific manner.

Rothschild believes this marks the future of polling, moving forward.

According to Rothschild and Pinero, the Xbox Live platform has the potential to deliver better data than post-debate reaction surveys conducted by broadcasters such as CNN. Instead of their current method of putting a few dozen people in a room and monitoring their reactions, Microsoft's election hub allows the company to collect data from users at home — in their natural habitat, so to speak. That setting, said Rothschild, leads to more legitimate and meaningful responses.

When asked about Xbox 360 owners who decried the intrusion of politics into their gaming time, Pinero praised Microsoft's "passionate and vocal community," but characterized the annoyed customers as a vocal minority. Prior to introducing the election hub, the company conducted a survey of Xbox Live users regarding their interest in such a platform, and according to Pinero, 61 percent of respondents were excited about this kind of interaction with the presidential election. And since the hub's launch, "the overwhelming majority of feedback" from Xbox Live users has been positive. "I think it's going to grow as the debates go on," he added.

Americans who have seen debates before are used to the network they're watching provide commentary on the performances from analysts. But Microsoft will simply provide an "unfiltered" stream of the debates themselves, with "no talking heads," said Pinero. Microsoft will "let the audience talk" by taking part in YouGov's live polls, he explained, so Xbox Live users can see what the community thinks of Obama's and Romney's performances.

"This may be the largest-ever interactive TV pilot"

Rothschild called Xbox Live a "massive social network" of people who "want their voices heard," and also said he's "excited about being on the forefront of what's gonna be the future of interactive TV."

Pinero put it another way, saying, "This may be the largest-ever interactive TV pilot."

Each campaign debate will begin at 9 p.m. ET. Here's the full schedule:
Wednesday, October 3: Presidential Debate - Domestic Policy
Thursday, October 11: Vice-Presidential Debate - Foreign and Domestic Policy
Tuesday, October 16: Presidential Debate - Foreign and Domestic Policy
Monday, October 22: Presidential Debate - Foreign Policy
Rock the Vote will livestream a concert on Xbox Live featuring Neon Trees and DJ Skee before and after the final debate on October 22, starting at 7 p.m. ET.

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