When Twitter first went mainstream I remember detractors complaining “it’s just people tweeting what they had for breakfast – boring.”

OK, there was some of that. Quite a bit, actually. But I used to defend Twitter back then. “Well yes,” I’d say. “But it’s not compulsory. There’s nothing to stop you tweeting, you know, interesting stuff.”

And so with surveys.  They’re seen as the lazy PR’s routine, route one cop-out.  Because they were once new, and they worked, people fell into the habit of suggesting them for everything.  And gradually the link between the sponsor and the content became so tenuous the media would just run the survey without crediting the source, because it represented an abrupt and irrelevant non sequitur.  The media came to loathe them. Clients began to tire of seeing them in pitches and even PRs rolled their eyes when they were mooted in brainstorms.

But back, briefly, to the early Twitter/breakfast tweets.  The survey mechanism itself isn’t intrinsically naff. It’s what you choose to talk about – and how you say it.  Think about using it as context – to frame something more fun, interesting or dramatic.

A survey to discover what time of day office workers ‘hit the wall’ and run out of energy is probably not, on the face of it, going to trigger much viral activity.  But a short video of a miserable looking millennial wearing a four-foot prosthetic wall and inviting people to punch him will probably do the trick. Similarly, a poll for the British Lung Foundation which reveals that three out of 10 people can’t climb a flight of stairs without experiencing breathlessness is unlikely to leave media consumers … well, breathless.  But a short video in which people are invited to cycle for a minute on an exercise bike while wearing a high altitude training mask which restricts oxygen flow? More engaging.

Get into the habit of using surveys as a key to unlock creative thinking.  Use of ‘freetext’ options, for instance, where respondents are given space to record experiences or views in their own words, can very often provide the material for a wholly new approach.  I worked on a project last year which revolved around personal savings, which returned pretty dull results apart from those for the freetext question ‘please tell us if you have collected or saved anything unusual which you have later sold for a profit’.

These – including a “tatty” old watch bought for £6 at a car boot sale later sold to a collector for £1,800 and a “ridiculous plaster bust of a woman’s head” snapped up for just £1 and sold for £300 on eBay – went on to shape a story which was well-received by the media who were happy to include the client’s key messaging.

The mechanism works outside of PR:  Brexit, Trump, The X Factor, The Sports Personality of the Year, the Eurovision Song Contest, even “what does everyone want for supper?”.

Just don’t call it a survey.

Written by Jay Williams, Director of Strategy, OnePoll/72Point