It’s time for market research to join 21st Century

There are a large number of discussions and consultations going on at the moment about initiatives from ESOMAR, CASRO, the MRS and others to try to regulate how social media research should be conducted, especially social media monitoring. The general thrust of the new guidelines is to try and fit the new world into the traditional values and ideas of market research. I think this is the wrong way to go about the change.
I think we need to change the whole of commercial market research to match the 21st Century, rather than try to keep shoehorning the new world into the old constructs.
My feeling is that there will soon be a schism in market research, between those trying to hang onto the past and those embracing the new.
The benefits of traditional market research ethics were that they allowed some exemptions to laws (e.g. data protections laws, laws about multiple contacts, laws about phoning people who were on ‘no call’ lists), increased public trust, and allowed market research to get close to a scientific model – for example to use concepts such as random probability sampling and statistical significance. Complying with codes of ethics incurred extra costs, but they also brought commercial benefits. The ‘proper’ market research companies could do things the non-research companies could not- so there was a commercial argument in favour of self-regulation, codes of conduct, and professional conduct bodies.
However, in several areas, ‘new’ market research is at odds with the traditional guidelines. Examples of where NewMR is at odds with the traditional ethics includes: the brand-related incentives for members of communities, the brand advocacy of community members, the changes wrought by deliberative research, and most of social media monitoring research. Other areas where research is drifting away from the classic model of anonymity include a growing amount of customer satisfaction and most of enterprise feedback systems.
Traditional market research is based on a) anonymity and b) informed consent. Large parts of new market research cannot deliver anonymity and in the area of social media research (and behavioural data integration) informed consent cannot be reliably assumed either.
If market research companies abide by the old ethics, in particular anonymity and informed consent, they will not be able to compete for business in most areas where market research is growing. This is because there will be no commercial benefits that will accrue to sticking to rules and ideas that nobody else does. To stick to out-dated rules simply provides a worse service for clients. Rules have costs, they only work when they also confer benefits.
The view of people like the UK’s MRS is that all of the ‘stuff’ that does not match the traditional view of market research should be done as “NOT market research”. The problem with this solution is that it will soon classify the majority of market research as “NOT market research” which is clearly nonsense.
My remedy is that commercial market research should be split from genuine social research (by social research I mean the stuff that is not done principally for commercial reasons, such as some of the research by Governments, academics, and NGOs). Social research should keep the traditional values of ethics and commercial market research should fully embrace the new world. The ethics of NewMR should be based on:
  1. The law
  2. Not doing things likely to outrage the public
  3. Creating high standards (and that can include charter marks and ISOs for those interested)
  4. Emphasising the need to be open and honest
Note the case for charter marks and ISOs should not be based on theoretical arguments, but simply on whether they confer commercial benefits. If signing up to an ISO means that market research companies are able to win more work, then the ISO is s a good thing. If the ISO simply makes the industry feel better about itself, the ISO is a bad thing.
These four principles would, for example, mean that if a company told respondents that the study was anonymous and that they would not be contacted, then it would have to be anonymous and there would have to be no follow-up contact – that would be the law in many countries (because a contract has been entered into) and failing to stick to a promise would outrage the public.
Similarly, the four principles would outlaw using a false identity to access a closed community (for example PatientsLikeMe) and surreptitiously scraping comments to be sold to a third party – i.e. the Nielsen scrape-gate case. I suspect that not only would this outrage the public and damage the value of the company, but it could easily fall foul of civil suits, where members of the community could sue for damages.
This model of market research ethics changes the balance of who determines what can and should be done. In the traditional market research model the rules were set by the wise market researchers, to protect respondents and brands. My suggestion is that respondents should determine what can and should be done with their data, and that citizens should set the framework.
What do you think?

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