FEATURE7 January 2011

Raising research’s profile – who’s right for the job?


Trust and respect from the public are vital to the market research business. Should research associations be doing more to improve the industry’s image? Or should agencies just focus on delivering better research?

“If we stepped outside this building and asked some people in the street about market research, what would they say? And would it have changed in 20 years?” That was the question asked by Danny Russell, research boss at BSkyB and chairman of client body Aura, at a recent event organised by the Independent Consultants Group.

Research associations in Germany have been pondering the same question – and have already done just what Russell suggests. They went out in to the street, asked passers-by what ‘market research’ meant to them, and made a video of the results. It involves a lot of staring into space and shrugging.

Waiting in the wings to fill this void are an array of bad ambassadors for research: disreputable telemarketers using it as a front for a sales pitch, irresponsible journalists butchering results of surveys, cosmetics ads claiming that 79% of 52 women agree with the PR copy for their product, and shoddy DIY online surveys.

Anonymous research blogger MR Heretic wrote recently that commercial websites fall into two categories: “sites that provide a valuable service and monetise their traffic through advertising, e-commerce or subscription fees… [and] sites that hustle, scam, or otherwise exploit naive web users by luring them in with promises of cash, prizes, porn, or other rewards. We are in the second group.”

Danny Russell believes industry bodies need to do more to defend research’s public image. “I think a lot of the responsibility for the positioning, perception and training within market research has to lie with the Market Research Society,” he said. As to how research positions itself, he says: “I am amazed that an industry that is going into very big business telling them how to position their brands is falling on its arse… I find it absolutely astounding that the MRS has not grabbed hold of this and said, ‘We are going to reposition ourselves.’ I am astounded the MRS hasn’t gone, ‘We identify this as a problem, we’re going to at least try and do something about it.’ I think that has ramifications.”

But Sally Ford-Hutchinson, a former chair of the MRS and now an independent researcher, disagrees, pointing out that the research industry’s angst over its image is not unique. “If you talk to the pharma industry, they’ll worry about their image, if you talk to the advertising industry they’ll worry about their image, if you talk to town planners in district councils they’ll worry about their image. It would be strange if we didn’t worry about this. I find it naive coming from the chair of Aura saying the MRS should sort the image out. Is anyone going to pay to sort the image out?”

That’s another question the German associations are closer to having an answer to. The country’s four major research bodies have come together to launch an ad campaign promoting research to the public, and pointing out the difference between research and telemarketing, but its success will rely on getting sponsorship from providers (and with luck users) of research.

When the four organisations first got together it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to money. Hartmut Scheffler of the ADM told Research: “We can start the initiative, we can finance agencies concerning the creative part, but at the end of the day we would like to start a mass media initiative, and that means we need money, we need sponsorship to play a relevant role… especially in radio at the beginning, in outdoor advertising and maybe even later on in TV.” The organisations have set the ball rolling with a set of outdoor ads, a website and flyers that agencies can distribute to help win respondents’ trust, but they need to build support if it is to keep going.

Such efforts to bolster the image of research are to be admired, but it still feels like research is on the back foot. The reasons offered in the German campaign for taking part in surveys are that your data will be protected and they won’t try to sell you anything – the only actual benefit to the respondent is the warm glow of having been asked their opinion and contributed to making better products and services.

In any case, if researchers are going to worry about the views of the man in the street, they should also think more urgently about how they are viewed by clients and business leaders. Brian Jacobs, who has produced a guidebook for commissioning research (to be published soon by advertiser body ISBA and the MRS) suggests agencies need to do a much better job of articulating the value of what they do, especially in a time when red pens are poised to slash anything that doesn’t offer a clear benefit. Jacobs says: “For the first time I can remember, senior management at client companies, and most particularly procurement heads, are saying: ‘Actually, why are we doing this research? What’s this for?’ And they’re not getting particularly good answers.”

James Smythe of Culture of Insight says research agencies are increasingly struggling to sell the value of their thinking time. “Heads of research are no longer seen as the gurus that they once were,” Smythe told Research. The solution, he says, lies in how agencies communicate the findings of research, and the value of conducting research. “Think like an advertising agency when you communicate research,” he advises. “Different key decision makers need to be communicated to in different ways.”

It wouldn’t hurt to extend the same approach to respondents too. In this month’s Research Magazine, Gary Austin of 100%Cotton suggests agencies should routinely produce summary research reports for respondents, because the cost of doing so is far outweighed by the longer-term benefits of keeping people interested and showing them that their participation has some kind of purpose.

Already techniques like co-creation and online communities offer a way for participants to become more engaged with the research process. A study by InSites Consulting and the University of Maastricht suggests that providing opportunities for social engagement in online research communities can make participants more willing to take part in surveys – even if they’re on topics unconnected to the discussions in the community.

Perhaps a more open, more equitable relationship with the people whose information we rely on is the way for the industry to build a positive image – rather than just countering a negative one.


12 years ago

It seems possible that some readers might detect just a little pomposity in Sally Ford-Hutchinson's description of Danny Russell as "naive". Leaving aside the fact that introducing a battery of independent topics is never an answer to a question, Danny (and others) might very reasonably ask "if the MRS will not defend the professional image of Market Research, who can?" I fear that the MRS - set up by individual researchers for individual researchers - may by default benefit only those large companies who choose to find, buried in their articles of association, some other raison d'etre.

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11 years ago

As a marketing communications specialist working in research for over 10 years I can confirm that hand-wringing and general navel gazing are not diseases of researchers alone. Working for many years in design, that industry was afflicted in the same way when I worked in it in the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of progress was made by the promotion of Effectiveness Awards that proved the power of good design to improve business and society. The resulting case studies were promoted very effectively beyond the industry in national media and did a lot to change the image of design from ‘poncey’ to productive. On the other hand, my recent experience is that getting research clients to reveal anything about the effectiveness of their research projects is extremely hard. There are many ways around confidentiality issues and I would love to see research clients embracing the need for the industry to develop good media stories - to promote the value of research to a wider audience. Perhaps that’s something that AURA/Danny Russell might be able to help with?

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11 years ago

Behaviour IMHO is the strongest mode to influence opinion - MR Agencies (rather than eg the MRS) need to step up individuallly and present themselves as contemporary, "getting it" in terms of what Marketing cares about, breaking through cliches, embracing Social Media, engaging with clients in a new way - and some innovative agencies are doing precisely that. I really doubt that a "communications campaign" will change much if nothing in the industry itself has actually changed. MR can be (IS!!) a cool career choice, and it can be extremely influential at Board Level, we don't need to navel gaze, but we do need to put it out there, be less bashful, stop hiding our light under a dusty bushel.

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