Running an interactive forum in the 21st Century – Poll Everywhere

In my last post I discussed three web-based mind mapping programs that could transform workshops and brainstorming sessions for small organisations (a discussion I’ll continue in future when I look at other mind mapping software which has online collaboration facilities). In this post I’ll take a look at a tool that could revolutionise how councils, NGOs and others run larger forums, campaigns and even, for NGOs, fund-raisers – Poll Everywhere.

A number of programs such as PollDaddy, SurveyGizmo, SurveyMonkey, QuestionPro and Zoomerang provide facilities for structured online surveys, but Poll Everywhere offers something distinctly different – voting via SMS text messages from mobile phones in real time.

As the Poll Everywhere website suggests, using Poll Everwhere is very simple. For example, if you are holding a forum, all you need is a Poll Everywhere account plan (more on these in a moment), a computer with an internet connection (and ideally a data projector to present results) and an audience equipped with mobile phones.

You then ask your audience a question and your audience send their responses using text messages, twitter or via the web (if they have a PC or smart phone). The results are then displayed in real time.

That’s it, really! But to go through the process more slowly, Poll Everywhere offers three sorts of polls:

The simplest are multiple choice polls where you set a question and provide a list of answers. Each answer is automatically provided with a five-digit code number and, in more expensive plans, a custom keyword. Forum participants then text the code number or word to a mobile phone number. Local numbers are available in Australia and the UK and short number codes in the US and Canada. The UK/Australia numbers can also be contacted from a number of other countries (participants will incur a charge from their mobile carrier for their text message, depending on their phone plan, their location and the number they are texting to).

The poll result is then automatically collated and displayed. As indicated before, participants can also vote via twitter or the web.

The following screenshot shows the poll editing screen with a sample multiple choice poll:


As can be seen, you can set parameters such as whether participants can vote more than once, whether they will receive a confirmation message and the methods for responding.

As everyone votes, Poll Everywhere collates the results in real time and displays them on a graph. In the following example, two people have voted for Policy 1, one for Policy 2 and none for Policy 3:


These results can also be downloaded in a spreadsheet.

Multiple-choice polls are obviously ideal for choosing between different options at strategic forums or even for voting for candidates. Voting can be done anonymously, cheaply and quickly and there is no down-time collating the results.

In many forums, however, prioritising options comes at the end of the process. First, you may want to get a list of ideas, suggestions and/or questions from your audience. Poll Everywhere also provides the ability to do this with free-text polls, a facility to ask open-ended questions to which the audience can respond with text messages, tweets or via the web. This option will test the texting skills of your audience, which may cause some complaints, but at least it will keep the responses short!

The third type of poll is the pledge poll, which allows people to pledge funds for a cause. Unlike the other polls, this one obviously requires the participants to be identified – this can be done, but it requires an upgrade to a paid plan.

On the subject of plans, Poll Everywhere has a free plan with limited features (such as only 30 responses per poll) which lets you access enough of the facilities to evaluate whether the program is suitable for your purposes. There are then a range of plans which allow more responses and access to an increasing number of features such as additional account users, respondent identification, customised keywords and text moderation.

Plans can be upgraded and down graded on a monthly basis. For most small groups, the US$15 a month personal plan which allows up to 50 responses per poll may be adequate; if you are running a larger forum the presenter (250 responses) or plenary (700 responses) options, which cost US$65 and US$140 a month respectively, may be more appropriate.

Verdict: Poll Everywhere offers a very tempting and cost-effective approach to gathering information and conducting polls in workshops or forums. Whilst it should never be seen as an alternative for proper discussion of policy and strategy options, it could be used judiciously to enhance this process, allowing for different questions to be asked and options tested in real time at the meeting. It could also be used very effectively in a brainstorming process with the mind mapping software I have been discussing.

The downsides appear to be limited. Obviously, ongoing costs are significant if you are on one of the higher-end plans – but you can upgrade and downgrade on a monthly basis. Your will need a computer with good internet access at your venue – and good mobile phone reception as well. If you think a significant proportion of your audience are going to have problems with texting or don’t have access to mobile phones, this solution might not be for you – however, if you only have a few participants in this category you could always provide a couple of computers with internet access to allow voting via the web.

As always, you should look at the issues I raised in a recent post about avoiding problems with Web 2.0 applications in evaluating Poll Everywhere. If you do decide to use it I would also suggest a dry run as well as taking a backup voting process to your meeting, forum or workshop.

Addendum: I was contacted by a Poll Everywhere representative after posting the above post (click on the comments flag to see his feedback), who kindly answered a few more of my questions. I was curious about time lags – he assured me they weren’t a problem, as it was statistically very unlikely that two very large (1,000+) polls would be held at the same time and numerous concurrent small polls are not a problem.

Keywords, which are available with the larger plans to replace code numbers, are provided on a first-come first-served basis, so if a common word isn’t available for a particular option when you are holding your poll you may have to be a little more inventive in your choice of keyword.

I’ve also edited my comment in the post regarding Poll Everywhere’s phone numbers to clarify that there are other numbers as well as an Australian number for people to send their text messages to and also that sending a message will a incur mobile carrier charge.

This entry was posted in Community Sector, Local Government, Meeting tools, Polls and Surveys, Web 2.0 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Running an interactive forum in the 21st Century – Poll Everywhere

  1. Jeff Vyduna says:

    Hi Alex –

    This is one of the best write ups we’ve had. You are thorough and accurate about us!

    I’ll add a few candid observations about our own product, both positive and negative:

    We are, I believe, the cheapest SMS Polling solution out there. In the cases where there is a cheaper alternative, it tends to lack a critical feature like live PowerPoint display. Our plans start at USD $0.30/participant per month, and go down to about $0.10 – so compared with an Audience Response System, it’s incredibly cost effective.

    I believe the worst part of the product and experience is that 1) We can’t afford to set up every country on a simple 5 digit “short code” number, and 2) We have to share keywords among all users, so we can’t give everyone simple answers like “A”, “B”, “C”, etc.

    We’re working on both though. Thanks again!



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