FEATURE1 August 2010

The etiquette of eavesdropping

What’s the right way to behave when listening in on online conversations? Jeffrey Henning proposes consumer-driven rules for social media monitoring.

As the web has evolved from a library to a mall to a public square, more and more conversations are taking place online. Many are about personal, parochial matters of little import to anyone other than the people involved, but quite a few are about causes, challenges and dilemmas, or products, services and brands: issues that your organisation cares deeply about.

As a result, social media market research – the scraping of the web for conversations and the subsequent analysis of these discussions – represents a new methodology for understanding our customers and the market at large. For instance, when I had to return my iPad to the store, I was curious how common this was, and used Twitter to discover why 50 other buyers returned their iPads. Not everyone specified in their tweet why they made the return, so I asked some (via Twitter) to clarify; for others I read their blogs or watched videos they had posted.

Should I have reached out and contacted people to discuss their reasons? Web 2.0 is supposed to be about engagement and connection, after all, but perhaps I was invading. The MR industry is debating this and other practices when it comes to social media research.

Certain issues are beyond debate. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not when joining internet discussions; don’t try to market or sell your products or services under the guise of conducting research. But many other issues have advocates on either side. Do we respect or ignore expectations of privacy? Do we engage online commenters or not? Do we seek permission to share customer comments in our research? Do we state the identities of commenters when we quote them?

“When people are blogging or sending status updates, having their data re-used for market research purposes is not on their mind. Which, of course, is what makes their comments so valuable”

Expectations of privacy: Respect or ignore?
Many researchers view internet searches as secondary research. In a LinkedIn discussion of social media research ethics, Audrey Anand, owner of Listengroup, wrote, “I would say that you should quote anything taken from a blog verbatim and attribute it. Reading content of blogs is desk research amongst publicly published material, not primary research.” In this view a blog is no different from a periodical or book that can be cited. As an objection to this Jan Trent, a research manager with Wendy’s International, said during an MRA presentation on the need for private online communities. “In a public social media site, they don’t want us there. We can’t lead. People don’t go to social media sites to talk to companies. They go to talk to their friends.” And when they are talking to their friends, whether blogging, microblogging or sending status updates, having their data re-used for market research purposes is not on their mind. Which, of course, is what makes their comments so valuable.

Online commenters: Engage or don’t engage?
Whether consumers expect researchers or not, blogging and other social sites are about connecting and socialising. Many discussions about next-generation research talk about a new need for respecting the research participant, even co-creating the research with them. Almost every blog has a comments section which invites such participation. At the 2009 Esomar online research conference, Josephine Hansom, a social researcher with GfK NOP, encouraged researchers to comment on blogs to seek clarification on points and to learn the blogger’s motivation, audience, identify and attitudes towards publishing. This is anathema to Annie Pettit, chief research officer of Conversition. In a blog post on ‘rugging’ she wrote: “Rugging refers to replying under the guise of research. This means that in the course of carrying out social media research, someone takes the step of replying to someone whose data just happens to appear in the research data set. The person didn’t ask to participate, and they didn’t respond to a question. For me, this is in direct violation of the Prime Directive. Sure, the internet is open. Sure, the links and names are readily available to everyone. But that doesn’t make it right. People need to be able to express their honest opinions without worrying that some big company is going to try to change their opinions.”

Sharing comments in research: seek permission or not?
When you share consumer comments gathered from the internet in your research, do you have to get the permission of consumers? Isn’t the ability to hyperlink to a page permission enough? Letesia Gibson, founder of State of Play, wrote a blog post “Ethics in online research” in which she asked even more questions. “Would it ever be possible to really get informed consent without affecting the quality of the learning, especially if you’re asking over the net? How would you practically go about getting informed consent – approach every member? Or would it be enough to simply announce in your profile that you are a market researcher?”

Identities of commenters: cite or obscure?
Market researchers are used to the verbatim response, which provides tremendous colour to survey research and which forms the backbone of qualitative research. The internet is full of verbatim comments on every subject imaginable. When they are used for research purposes, what are the responsibilities? For instance, Ray Poynter, managing director of The Future Place, has frequently cited the Finn and Lavitt study on computer-based support groups for sexual abuse survivors, in which verbatim comments were included without attribution. Unfortunately, because anyone could log into these communities they could identify who had said what. Today a verbatim comment can be easily copied and pasted into a search box, taking you right to the person who wrote it.

Consumer perceptions of social media research
Noticeably absent from the debates about proper practices are what consumers themselves think of social media market research.

At Vovici, we were curious about consumer perceptions of these issues and in May we conducted a survey of 426 online users in the US. We asked them about their awareness of social media monitoring, their privacy concerns and how they wanted to be treated by market researchers.
Of the respondents, 95% were concerned about their privacy on the internet and 40% were very or extremely concerned. As a caveat, keep in mind that the dates of this study corresponded with the most recent Facebook privacy scandal. It appears to be fashionable to express concern about internet privacy, yet not act on that concern. Consumers who were extremely concerned about privacy did not behave materially differently from people who were less concerned: concerned users didn’t engage in fewer online activities, didn’t comment less on web sites, and didn’t share their real identities (photos, real names) less than those who were less concerned.

Sixty-nine per cent of respondents were aware that “organisations monitor and analyse public internet discussions”, and 45% were aware that market researchers monitor such discussions.

And how do consumers want market researchers to behave?

Respect expectations of privacy. According to the majority of consumers, social media conversations are conversations, so take care when eavesdropping. After all, conversations in public places aren’t meant to be public, just because they can be overheard. Researchers aren’t the intended audience for social media discussions.

Don’t engage with commenters. Only 15% of respondents thought it was acceptable to be contacted by independent market researchers through social media, although 56% thought it was acceptable for the organisation they were commenting on to contact them.

Seek permission to share consumer comments in your research. If you must share comments in research reports, 85% of respondents want you to get their permission first.

Obscure identities of commenters. Most do not want to be identified: 43% would prefer that you not identify them at all, 24% want to be described by their demographics. Only 7% are comfortable having their real name included with their comment.

Should we honour these expectations of consumers? What practices are best to preserve the long-term health of a very promising research methodology?

Possible industry responses
The MR industry can decide that these are simply healthy areas of debate and do not reflect on the professional conduct of research at all. Some researchers can engage with Twitter users, for instance, and others can choose not to. The concern among some of those pushing for greater regulation is that failure to self-police will invite harmful legislation or external regulation from outside parties more concerned about politics than ethics and best practices.

On the opposite end of the scale, overly strict regulation of social media market research will prompt researchers to re-classify themselves as PR, marketing or even service staff. Service staff will be contacting commenters directly, even offline, in order to provide service to customers and prospects. Marketing and PR staff will be engaging with commenters in order to educate them about the virtues of the brand, product or service they are promoting. If market researchers can’t engage with potential subjects using social media, are we voluntarily reducing our usefulness and relevance in a social media world?

Annie Pettit worries that, in the absence of consumer-driven standards for research behaviour, people will withdraw behind their friends-only pages so that their comments are not visible to us. Just as participation has declined across other research methods, it will decline in social media as well. And that, no one would dispute, would be bad for the industry.

Jeffrey Henning is the founder of online survey software maker Vovici and a prolific market research blogger. He has 21 years of experience in research and has also worked as a columnist for Computerworld magazine

Vovici’s online survey was conducted between 7 and 10 May 2010 using a sample, supplied by Western Wats, of 426 adults in the US. The response rate was 8.5%. For more information contact jhenning@vovici.com


14 years ago

Jeff raises excellent and in many cases difficult questions. I believe that the cornerstones of ethical and sustainable social media research will be to (i) insure that no marketing against the conversants occurs and (ii) that demonstrate that sound research methodologies must be applied, i.e, this is not just about collecting data.

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14 years ago

Thanks, Duane -- I like your phrase "sustainable social media research". As we are in the early stages, now is the time to forge a consensus for the ground rules of how to behave, so that we can create a strong foundation for years of building to come.

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14 years ago

Terrific post, which raises more questions than answers. Of course, in terms of social media, we keep redefining what we consider acceptable. What we think this year will be replaced by something else next year as we are desensitized and our norms are overwritten. Fb was a shock in the beginning, as was Twitter. Now it's normal. Firsly, I don't believe that people don't want to interact with companies on social networks. This doesn't explain why every company with sense is setting up shop on these networks, and are accumulating 'likes' from users purely because we love to boast associations and connections. It's working for them. The other thing is that the world is becoming increasingly invasive. The prospect of someone (who may or may not be a researcher) asking me an arbitrary question online, which I could choose to ignore, is no more invasive than the cellular network who calls me on my mobile to sell me (you guessed it) another mobile. There are few barriers to contact but we need to exercise our choice to respond. This has always been the right of the respondent. Of course, if someone starts selling you stuff you don't want, you walk away. This isn't new, it just used to be a guy outside a mall exit with a clipboard... Thanks Jeff :) @antonyadelaar

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