Tuesday, 01 December 2015


All posts from: November 2009

A question of trust

Thu, 26 Nov 2009

Over at the FreshMinds Research blog, Dave Bevan has posted this amusing video from the Onion about Google and online privacy. Bevan argues that attitudes to privacy include two questions: how you feel about consumerism and how much you trust those in power.

“It only makes sense to jealously guard your data if you believe either that it will be used to dupe you into consumption that is bad for you or others, or that it is likely to fall into the hands of nefarious governments,” he writes. Otherwise, you risk just “sticking tape over your own mouth”.

It has to be said, the privacy campaigners who have argued vehemently against online tracking activities have not done a good job of articulating the threat. It’s more that they believe that information will inevitably be abused because either they don’t like consumerism or they don’t trust those in power, or both.

There’s no question that the systems used by public and private organisations to manage our data are open to abuse. The UK’s information commissioner says 434 organisations have reported data losses in the past year – a figure it calls “unacceptable”. That includes hospitals and various government departments, as well as 200 private companies. There’s nothing to suggest that the behaviour of any of these organisations was “nefarious” – just irresponsible or incompetent to some degree – but the potential is there.

Companies engaged in ISP-level behavioural tracking say they want to provide better advertising, but sceptics might argue that’s just another way of saying they want to watch everything you do in order to sell you more stuff.

As for cloud computing, there are obvious concerns associated with putting all your personal data in the hands of a big corporation like Google, but then a lot of us are already doing this with our web-based email, photo albums and social networks (which, of course, we all access for free).

Whether these threats are real or perceived is not really the point because this is ultimately a question of trust, which, as we all know, is something that has to be earned.

The rise of social media has revealed that how we thought we felt about privacy isn’t how we really feel. It’s not just about privacy, it’s about control. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, we seem willing to share pretty much anything online – but it has to be on our own terms. So we might choose to put information online but it remains our information, and woe betide anyone who breaches our trust by trying to do anything with it that we didn’t know about or explicitly allow.

As Adam Phillips, who chairs Esomar’s professional standards committee, said at the IJMR Forum earlier this month, researchers should avoid observational techniques that are “not yet technically illegal”. Going as far as the law allows might seem OK in the short term, but as trust erodes beneath your feet you’ll soon find yourself in difficulties.

The reason that behavioural targeting companies like NebuAd (now defunct) and Phorm have had trouble is that they have not won people’s trust. Privacy is turning out to be a very touchy subject, and it’s all too easy to cause suspicion or alarm if you don’t tread very carefully. Convincing yourself that you’re doing something harmless, or even virtuous, is one thing, but winning the trust of the people whose information you want to use is quite another.

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The mind's eye

Tue, 24 Nov 2009

BBC One’s Inside Out London featured a nice segment on neuromarketing and eye-tracking research yesterday, with some interesting footage and interviews with Iain Janes of Eyetracker, Gemma Calvert of Neurosense, Richard Malton of JCDecaux and Robin Wight of ad agency WCRS.

“The future for market research is open to any kind of technology that will help advertisers understand what really motivates us at the most basic level,” said presenter Jo Good. Can’t argue with that.

But seriously, folks...

Mon, 23 Nov 2009

In an interview in today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the German satirist Martin Sonneborn tells of his experience of the world of MR.

Sonneborn did some door-to-door survey work while he was a student, before joining the satirical magazine Titanic, of which he later became editor.

He says his main priority in the job was to put in the minimum possible amount of effort, which meant that if the most positive answers were listed first on the questionnaire, then an overwhelming majority of respondents would end up saying (for example) that having a fridge in their living room was a brilliant idea.

But it wasn’t a complete waste of time – Sonneborn, who now writes for Spiegel Online and can be seen on ZDF’s Heute Show, says the experience taught him some useful lessons. “I know now how surveys can be manipulated and how to evaluate market research,” he says.

Speaking of satirists, Armando Iannucci (the man wholly or partly responsible for On The Hour, The Day Today, Alan Partridge, In The Loop and The Thick Of It) will be one of the keynote speakers at Research 2010 in March. Keep an eye on the Events section of Research-live.com for more details.

Ask a stupid question

Fri, 20 Nov 2009

We’re a little late in highlighting this nugget of survey abuse, but it’s definitely one worth covering. The culprit this time is one who we think really should know better: the service veterans’ charity Erskine.

Erskine put out a press release in time for Remembrance Day which begins: “School children believe Adolf Hitler was coach to Germany’s national football team and that the symbol of Remembrance Day is the McDonald’s Golden Arches, according to new research released today.”

Perhaps you saw it reported in The Times, the Mirror, the Express, the Mail, the Telegraph, the Metro, the Star, the Herald, the Daily Record or the Dundee Courier & Advertiser.

Words fail us on this one. First, as you may have guessed, these “shocking” answers were not provided spontaneously but came in response to multiple choice questions. So less a ‘survey’, more a quiz. We wouldn’t be surprised if many of the kids ticked the ‘German football coach’ box just because it was funnier than saying Hitler was leader of the Nazi party.

Choices offered on other questions included that Joseph Goebbels was Terry Wogan’s replacement on Radio 2 (1.27%), Winston Churchill was a 1950s pin-up (1.47%), and the First World War was triggered by the murder of John Lennon (15.02%). As you can see, Erskine has decided that these important findings merit two decimal places.

In the case of the Hitler question, 6.88% was enough for them to claim that “school children believe” he was the German football coach. On the McDonald’s question, it was 12.73%. Both those questions were answered correctly by more than three-quarters of the kids.

Erskine calls the results “astonishing”. No. It’s the questions that are astonishing.

An invitation to comment on one of the press reports of the survey asked: “Do you despair of education in this country?” No. We despair of PR surveys in this country.

Watch out for the December issue of Research, in which we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the public understanding of research and stats, and what the MR industry can do about it.

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Coffee house culture

Thu, 19 Nov 2009

Last night on BBC Radio 4, Adam Hart-Davis’ The Eureka Years looked at 1650, when an exciting new drink called ‘coffee’ was transforming London’s intellectual culture. Coffee houses became the respectable alternative to taverns, serving a drink that sharpened rather than dulled the senses and fuelled conversation about arts, science, politics and business. Lloyds’ insurance market, the Stock Exchange and Newton’s theory of gravitation all have their origins in the coffee house.

Tom Standage, business editor of The Economist by day and an expert in the history of coffee by night, draws parallels between coffee house culture and the internet: “Coffee houses tended to have subject-specific alignments, so if you were the clergyman you would go to this one, and if you were an actor you went to that one and if you were a sailor you went to that one, and so forth. They were a bit like websites, and you’d sort of go to the ones that matched your interests…

“The scientists all went to a bunch of coffee houses where they would discuss scientific matters, so the Royal Society would meet and then they’d retire to a coffee house. There were scientific lectures held in coffee houses - they were sometimes called penny universities because you could go in, buy your coffee for a penny and then listen to interesting people talk about interesting things and join in and pick up so much information in these places…

“Coffeehouses had publications on the table, the newspapers, pamphlets, that sort of thing, so you could absorb information on lots of different subjects very easily. You walk in, you buy your coffee, you go over and see what people are talking about, read the news and so on. So it’s very much like browsing the web today.”

The power of coffee house conversation was understood by Charles II, who tried to ban them in the 1670s, fearing that they were a hotbed for radical political thought. But by that point they were just too ingrained in the culture, and he had to live with them. In Paris, coffee houses were teeming with spies working for the crown, and archives describe the anti-royalist buzz they picked up. Companies concerned about what people might be saying about them do similar things via social media monitoring today (although generally with a more constructive approach when things don’t go their way).

These days, coffee shops don’t really play the role of a venue for networking. We’re not short of places to buy a latte, and different coffee shops attract different crowds, but I don’t know of any in London that cater particularly to people who want to talk about naval history or microbiology or Japanese animation.

Nor do they typically host lectures, and in most cases, striking up a conversation with a complete stranger about science or politics or some other weighty subject would be considered odd at best, and rude at worst. Unless, of course, you’re doing it on the internet, via your laptop, using the free wi-fi.

350 years ago, niche audiences and communities thrived with nothing more high-tech than some caffeine, a pamphlet and a roaring fire. It’s taken a while for digital technology to bring us to the same point.

NB. because of the vagaries of the BBC iPlayer the audio link above only works if you’re in the UK, and the actual programme begins about 2 minutes into the recording

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Social media is...

Fri, 13 Nov 2009

Social media has a habit of inspiring people to purple prose. Here are some of Mediawatch’s favourite examples of flowery descriptions and ambitious analogies:

“Social media is like teen sex. Everyone wants to do it. No one actually knows how. When finally done, there is surprise it’s not better.”
Avinash Kaushik of Google says what we were all thinking, March 2009

“Social media measurement is the meteorology of marketing, and a lot of social media ‘work’ might as well be rain dances.”
Tom Ewing of Kantar warns that some people don’t know as much as they claim to, September 2009

“The expanse of available content ranges from the list servers and bulletin boards of yesteryear to the more ephemeral staccato of Twitter.”
Scott Evans of Harris Interactive makes Twitter sound cleverer than it is, November 2009

“[Researchers have become] ticks on the back of the information hippo”
Tom Ewing again, in philosophical mood, October 2009

“In real life we can sit through a boring presentation and then have a whispered chat with our neighbour about how dull it was, before putting on a bright smile and congratulating the speaker as they breeze up to us and ask what we thought. If we thought that the entire conversation with the neighbour would be retrievable later by the speaker, we might act rather differently.”
Alison Macleod says social media isn’t always as unfiltered as we might think, May 2009

“As more human behaviours emit trails of digital residue, more opportunities reside for algorithms to harness those human-induced data.”
Max Kalehoff, ex-BuzzMetrics, makes it all sound rather messy, March 2007

“[The potential of tracking vast amounts of information] raises the question of why anyone would want to track all the information in the world. It’s a bit like saying, ‘Let’s drop in on every conversation in the UK now to see if they’re talking about our product.’”
James Cherkoff of Collaborate Marketing suggests that some of what’s said on the internet might not actually be that interesting, January 2008

“Adding ‘listening’ techniques to ‘asking’ is like going from an X-ray to a CAT scan.”
David Wiesenfeld of Nielsen on tracking your brand’s health, September 2009

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Crowdsourcing... or just crowd pleasing?

Mon, 9 Nov 2009

Levi Roots hasn’t done badly for himself. Since his appearance on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den in 2007, his Reggae Reggae Sauce is available in all the big supermarkets as well as Wetherspoons pubs, and he’s got his own TV show on Caribbean cooking.

But the dragons cheated a bit on this one. The point of Dragons’ Den is supposed to be to pick out people with great business ideas and potential. All they did with Levi Roots was cash in on the primetime TV exposure. However tasty it is, would Reggae Reggae Sauce have made it on to the supermarket shelves without Levi’s TV appearance? Mediawatch doubts it.

It’s a similar story when you look at high profile examples of crowdsourcing. Millward Brown’s Nigel Hollis (from whom we admit to having half-stolen the title of this post) has been blogging about the technique entering the mainstream. But how often is it just an attention-grabbing gimmick? Crowdsourcing exercises so often involve high-profile calls for action that it can be difficult to tease apart the effect of the publicity you get when you loudly ask for the public’s views, and the value of the ideas that they actually come up with (compared to what ad agency creatives might have managed).

Unilever has ditched its ad agency of many years and turned to crowdsourcing site Ideabounty to find the idea for its next Peperami ad. More than 1000 entries have been received, and here we are writing about it before the idea has even been decided on. Of course, engaging the public is all part and parcel of how crowdsourcing works, but Mediawatch wonders whether, when the brands involved have enough clout to rely on getting some coverage and attention, the search for ideas is really an afterthought.

Most suspicious of all is the tale of Kraft’s new Vegemite variant, Cheesybite, which started out with the silly name of iSnack2.0 – supposedly crowdsourced from entries to a competition. The name was then ditched with much fanfare and replaced by Cheesybite, which came out of an online vote.

Since nobody in their right minds would call a product iSnack2.0 unless they were joking, we can take this to be a very successful publicity exercise. In a conversation between some Australians (the main – or perhaps only – target market for Vegemite) overheard by Mediawatch this weekend, there was much talk of Cheesybite, focusing mostly on the naming controversy rather than the merits of the product itself. Could Vegemite’s marketing team have come up with as good a name by themselves without all this hoo hah? Of course they could have. But (as the Google Trends results for Vegemite testify) they wouldn’t have got anything like as much publicity.

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