Open to all?
Peter Dann and Adam Staton of The Nursery probe consumer attitudes to privacy in social media – and ask whether researchers are welcome.
There’s an intellectual battle going on in research – and social media is at the heart of it. Conflicts are often disputes over boundaries, and this one is no different. In this instance, we have researchers fighting over what is and isn’t public and what can and can’t be used when it comes to researching people within social media environments.
Social media research is not like other forms of active market research. We do not recruit respondents or observe them, we simply source and analyse snippets of people’s conversation on social media about a particular brand or topic. It is the modern equivalent of reading local papers, parish magazines and public noticeboards, except that in the 21st century everyone has the ability to publish their thoughts, no matter how banal or irrelevant. How can it be wrong to read that stuff? It is, after all, publicly available.
But is it meant to be? For some the argument goes: people don’t know that these forums are public, and they should be protected from their own unintended publication. Both the Market Research Society and Esomar, two of the industry’s standards-setting bodies, say broadly that social media listening exercises run contrary to the principle of informed consent which lies at the heart of industry codes of conduct. One commentator likened it to peering into someone’s living room and overhearing the conversation they were having inside. Surely that observation is misguided and inappropriate. As professional and ethical market researchers we take people’s privacy seriously; this makes us sound like snoopers.
Of course, the important question to ask is whether social media users see market researchers in this way. Do they feel they need protecting from us?
Hawkers and stalkers
We conducted our own survey of 423 social media users, a mix of those who were active Twitter users and those who weren’t. The majority were recruited through Research Now’s mobile panel, topped up with 17 respondents re-recruited from a previous Twitter survey.
What was very clear from the research was that people who comment about brands on public social media platforms want their voices to be heard: 9 out of 10 Twitter users in our sample said this was the case at least some of the time.
Equally, most people are already so familiar with brands being present in social media that they are perfectly comfortable with researchers being there too. Indeed, of our sample 56% already knew that companies conduct market research in social media and 42% of those who weren’t previously aware weren’t really surprised to hear it. We asked if people were bothered by researchers being active in social media and 71% said they weren’t.
What’s the bother?
We were interested to see what it was that concerned the other 29%, so we re-contacted them to ask them to explain. Nearly three-quarters responded, of whom the majority (76%) were worried about their private data being compromised, while 59% were nervous that they would be sold to. Both of these concerns fall squarely under existing codes of conduct, which would apply to any research in any media – social media included. There is an obligation on all of us as researchers to preserve our respondents’ anonymity and to refrain from selling our clients’ wares or letting their details be used for that purpose.
More tellingly from a researcher’s point of view is that respondents were very clear that different social media channels have varying levels of privacy, as the chart below shows. Broadly, very little is seen to be private - people have woken up to the fact that they have to be as careful in social media as anywhere else on the internet. Indeed, theoretically private spaces such as password-protected groups are still seen as being open by a fair few of our respondents.
But we saw some confusion about the status of personal Facebook pages. There are as many who consider it a public space as there are who see it as private. Of course, Facebook itself is constantly shifting its position. It starts out as a social networking site where you keep in touch with friends, then you start befriending people who aren’t friends – and liking brands that aren’t even people. Facebook itself might change its privacy rules; then it allows advertisers more space on a page. No wonder there is so much confusion.
Let’s be clear
This confusion is absolutely no reason to avoid social media as a research resource – although it is good reason to ensure that our social media research is as respectful and professional as any other research we conduct. When we work in social media research we can’t lurk in private forums. We don’t try and crack open private Facebook pages. We anonymise verbatims in social media just as we do in traditional research. And we trust our clients not to Google a verbatim to track down its author, just as we trust them not to follow respondents home from a viewing facility and mug them on their doorsteps.
We think that if 9 out of 10 people want to be heard by the brands they’re talking about on social media, then we as researchers should facilitate that - just as we do in traditional research. And to the 10% of people who tweet about companies and don’t want them to hear, we say: “Wake up and read the not very small print on Twitter’s own ‘About us’ page: “Businesses use Twitter to quickly share information with people interested in their products and services, gather real-time market intelligence and feedback, and build relationships with customers, partners and influencers.”
Recently, we wanted to use one of our Twitter surveys as a case study and asked the authors of all our verbatims if they minded us using them. Not only did all but one say yes, they were incredulous that we seemed to be missing the point of Twitter. “If you post anything on the web it’s out there for everyone to see,” said one. “If you feel you want it to be private then don’t post it in the first place.”
If researchers don’t embrace this area ethically and professionally, we will leave a huge and valuable space open to exploitation by social media practitioners less guided by ethics than we are. But the principal of informed consent shouldn’t apply here any more than it does in any published media.
Peter Dann won the Best Presenter Award at MRS Conference 2012