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FEATURE1 October 2009

A bit of a blur?

Research has worked hard over the years to set itself apart from marketing and advertising. But as relationships between companies and consumers change, Robert Bain asks whether this approach still makes sense.

Researchers have always been at pains to disassociate themselves in the eyes of the public from other activities like marketing and advertising, which people see as self-serving or untrustworthy. But recent experience suggests the industry should be careful what it wishes for.

When countries including the US, UK and Canada began introducing do-not-call lists to stop unwanted marketing calls, research industry representatives initially welcomed the move (once they had secured exemptions), on the grounds that it would help to reinforce the distinction between marketing and research.

But in more recent commentary on the future of telephone research, those same do-not-call lists have been cited as contributing to the medium’s decline.

What went wrong? The explanation seems to be that the public has developed an expectation that they don’t have to receive unsolicited calls at all. Whether it’s research or marketing means nothing to most people - they’ve signed up to not receive unsolicited calls, and if you continue to call them, not only will they not be interested, they’ll resent it.

Attitude problem
Clearly, research hasn’t quite kept pace with this change in attitudes. The mistake was to assume that the content of the calls was the problem. As it turned out, the problem was the very fact that people were being called out of the blue – not an approach that sits well in a world where people are getting used to giving and receiving information how they want, when they want and where they want. The story suggests that we need to look again at the notion that the separation of research from marketing and advertising – enshrined in various professional codes – is really such a cornerstone of the industry’s reputation. One of the assumptions on which this is based is that it’s tough to get people to share their opinions, and even tougher if they think you’re trying to sell them something. But the boom in social media has shown that people are itching to share all sorts of information about themselves – on their own terms.

It has also seen research and marketing increasingly occupying the same space – with research becoming just another of a brand’s many touchpoints. And rather than being a threat, this can be a great opportunity. Take for example the rapidly growing area of branded online communities. As Ray Poynter of Virtual Surveys says, the connection to the brand is vital in encouraging people to get involved. “It really only works if there’s a community of interest,” he says.

Similarly when it comes to co-creation, another approach that has been fuelled by social media technology, participants are selected not because they are representative of the target audience, but because they are highly engaged with the brand. This is a crucial part of what makes the process work.

Job Muscroft of co-creation agency Face describes the move from established methods to more collaborative techniques as a change from “a linear relationship where we stand between clients and consumers” to “a triangular relationship between brands, people and researchers”.

In other areas such as customer satisfaction, research has always been a brand touchpoint. And even in surveys or focus groups where the client is not acknowledged, it often doesn’t take a genius to work out who the sponsor is. In many cases this is best avoided, but presenting research in a way that’s in tune with your branding can be an effective way of encouraging people to take part – particularly online.

Touchpoint touchstone
Tom Woodnutt of Hall & Partners predicts in a recent article that “as research’s role expands from evaluator to consumer collaborator and campaign inspirer, the experience of taking part in research will become more of a brand touchpoint in its own right”.

Woodnutt argues that web intercept surveys are “best executed in ways that are sensitive to the brand creative”. Once again, it comes down to the difference between interrupting what people are doing and incorporating the research into what they are doing.

“We as the people managing the community are custodians of the brand, and if the client wants to do something that’s not respectful of the respondent, We’re able to go back to the client and say, we don’t recommend you do it this way…”

Andrew Cooper

Another advantage of letting your research become a brand touchpoint is that quality cannot be so easily overlooked. Bad surveys lead to low participation rates and poor data, but we all know it still happens. Andrew Cooper, founding partner of online community firm Verve, says this lack of discipline can often be the result of the distance put between a client and their research participants by an agency talking to people anonymously.

“What I like about the online brand community model is, we’re putting the brand much more into direct contact again with the customer,” he told Research. “We as the people managing the community are custodians of the brand, and if the client wants to do something that’s not respectful of the respondent, we’ve got a much stronger position to push back. We’re able to go back to the client and say, we don’t recommend you do it this way, we recommend you do it that way. There has to be much stronger discipline in survey writing to respect the respondent much more, because they’re your customers. And that leads to better response rates.”

Community spirited
Cooper’s colleague Mike Hall, who has just produced a paper on ‘How online brand communities work’, says the rise of communities gives research the opportunity to be at the centre of a new way of doing business. Old rules about separating research and marketing are “built around a concept that is out of date,” he said. “People are quite capable of giving opinions and acting as users and enthusiasts at the same time,” Hall told Research. “People can separate that. They will not have problems that the organisation is sometimes having a pure conversation with them, and sometimes selling to them, and sometimes marketing to them. It’s all perfectly possible.”

Hall dismisses the new term ‘market research online community’ (or MROC) as misleading. A community, he argues, is formed and defined by its members, not by what its sponsors choose to use it for. “You can have a community and only use it for research, that still doesn’t make it a research community,” he says.

Online community practitioners see research as one strand of a wider relationship, incorporating elements of marketing, advertising and customer care, which are naturally entwined. And this can work in their clients’ favour, with research activity strengthening brands and building positive word-of-mouth. Ray Poynter gives an example from his work: “If you’ve helped redesign something in the EasyJet community, even if 600 other people also suggested it, you all think it’s you, and you start telling people about it. You feel an affinity.”

Incendiary incentives
But feeling out this new boundary between research and marketing can be tricky. One flashpoint is the issue of using a client’s products and services as incentives for participation. Clearly there are risks associated with this: not only could it skew your results, but if the person in question happens to be using the survey to tell you how much they hate your product it might not be very appropriate.

There are instances where it makes sense, though, both economically and in terms of how you’re interacting with the participant. So when the UK’s Market Research Society recently announced a ban on the use of client incentives in the forthcoming revised version of its code of conduct, it was accused of shooting itself in the foot.

Simpson Carpenter’s Kevin Connolly said the new MRS rule was “more severe than it needed to be” and could hurt participation rates for customer satisfactions surveys. Others on the clientside warned that it would make surveys more expensive to run.

Online community firms argued their work would be much more difficult without client-related incentives of some sort. The fact that people might be influenced by what they get out of the process is just one of many points worth considering, they argue, and has to be weighed up against the value you’re getting from them taking part in the first place.

Poynter says participants in branded communities “have joined to help the brand improve its offer. They want to be listened to, they want to be informed, and they want to be thanked – and they expect that thanks to be related to the brand”.

He was quick to characterise the MRS decision as an example of an outdated ‘command and control’ mindset, whereby researchers try to tell respondents what’s good for them, rather than letting them do things on their own terms. Sugging remains as bad an idea as it ever was, but Poynter argues that we should focus on putting people in control of how their own information is used, rather than assuming that research activity must not be contaminated by anything that smells of marketing.

But the MRS claims its hands are tied, as the Information Commissioner’s Office has made clear it would regard the use of client incentives as a form of promotion, and that presenting it as research would constitute a breach of the Data Protection Act. This means that any project involving client incentives will, as of December, have to be conducted under the MRS’s regulations for “using research techniques for non-research purposes”.

James Turner, who heads up the newly expanded online division of FreshMinds – including the online research community business that was previously part of sister company FreshNetworks – said the MRS decision on client incentives is “a real shame”.

Turner accepts that offering client incentives could create a bias in results, but he says we should look at the bigger picture. “As with all methodologies, understanding the biases is an important factor when you discuss methodology for the client. I think the concerns are valid, but I think there are circumstances where insight can be drawn from a variety of sources, and the question that has to be asked is, does the bias make it worse than a different methodology?”

As for the current solution to the issue, Turner said: “FreshMinds has no aspirations to do research for non-research purposes. We’re a research business.”

Being built on the uncertain ground of the public’s goodwill, research frequently finds itself on the defensive, and as a result has often ended up defining itself in terms of what it isn’t rather than what it is. Increasingly there is an argument for more flexible and inclusive definitions of research – ones that can embrace the various new techniques that are being pioneered, without losing sight of the standards that make research worthwhile.


Ray Poynter, director of Virtual Surveys, on the changing relationship between research, marketing and branding

Research has made great efforts to distinguish itself from marketing. Do you see a danger in allowing them to overlap?
I’m not sure about ‘danger’, but I think there are consequences. We want to draw a very clear distinction between when we are being the independent observer, even if we’re doing it for a brand, and when we’re getting involved. That is just as it has always been – it’s necessary for the respondent not to be overtly aware of who the sponsor of the research is. We might see [the separation of research and marketing] as important, and the Information Commissioner might see it as important, but potential respondents haven’t always. It works both ways - sugging is pretty much universally disliked, but if the respondent asks for more information about buying something and you say, ‘No, it’s not in your interests,’ that annoys them. It’s really about putting the data subject in charge of their data.

I think customer satisfaction work has always been better when it’s appealed to people’s sense of wanting to improve the brand, and it’s never been possible to disguise anyway. We tell them we’re an independent research company contacting them on behalf of brand X, but to them we are brand X.

Doesn’t allowing the brand to get involved skew your results?
Absolutely, the results are always skewed in some way. You simply have to live with that. If you’re visiting your bank’s website and a pop-up comes up that doesn’t look like it’s from your bank, you’re going to wonder what’s going on. So if someone runs a survey that way, they’ll pretty much only be interviewing the clueless and the careless, because no one should be clicking on a pop-up on a banking site unless it’s from the bank.

Does it affect how clients view quality when their brand is associated with the research?
It does in online research communities, where it’s really in their face and we tend to talk to marketing people. When they realise they’re having a discussion, they understand, and people are simply very rude back to them if they’re not treated properly. Still, in customer satisfaction it’s not unusual to hear, ‘Can’t we just put another 10 minutes on the survey?’ I tell them, ‘You can do it, but I wouldn’t, because you’ll annoy your customers.’

Do you expect to see brand relationships used more as a way of encouraging people to take part in research?
Yes, I think it will spread, partly because of finding people to take part in these surveys and partly because of ROI. There’s been a bit of academic research that says if you interview these people you’re going to sell more stuff to them, and I think that’s been accidental, but in the future it’s going to be less accidental. A great example is Albert Hein in the Netherlands. They took the suggestion box and put it on steroids. And once you’ve made an improvement and you see it, that becomes your store. If you’ve helped redesign something in the EasyJet community, even if 600 other people suggested it, you all think it’s you. Then you start telling people about it and you feel more affinity. Your brand is not just the brand you selected, it’s the brand you helped shape.

You can read the response to this article from Geoff Gosling, chairman of the Market Research Standards Board, here.

1 Comment

10 years ago

We all know that the aim of research is to collect and analyse information - not to directly create sales nor influence opinions. Recent changes in technology, legislation and society have not altered this purpose – but what has changed is the demand for researchers to use their skills to provide services above and beyond traditional research boundaries. Want to assist a client in building a panel of consumers who are incentivised by an offer of the client’s product? Absolutely fine – but this is not research. It is using research techniques for a non-research purpose. Statistics and research are defined in legislation. When researchers start building customer relationship panels for clients to engage with their customers, this is a promotional activity, regulated by data protection laws from which traditional research is exempt but this activity is not. Not to follow the appropriate legislation would be illegal, and removing the exemptions would be detrimental to the sector. Researchers are traversing exciting new fields but we must all continue to respect the regulations which protect our industry. Together we must improve understanding of the distinction between using research techniques and conducting research – which is what the new changes to the Code are seeking to do.

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