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OPINION15 October 2009

From a blur to an oasis?

Opinion

In response to this month’s cover feature on blurring definitions of research, Geoff Gosling of the MRS Market Research Standards Board calls for some clarity about the purpose of research.

As chairman of the Market Research Standards Board (MRSB), I read with interest the article in October’s Research magazine about the blurring of the definition of research. The recent MRS Code of Conduct update and particularly the new rules restricting client incentives precipitated this feature and discussion. However, there seems to be some misunderstanding about what is really going on.

The purpose of research has remained relatively unchanged since the introduction of the MRS Code back in 1954. In a nutshell the aim of research is to collect and analyse information, and not to directly create sales nor influence the opinions of anyone participating in it. The recent changes in technology, legislation and society have not changed the research purpose. What has changed is the demand for researchers to provide more outside of research. Invariably this requires researchers to utilise their research skills and research techniques, but for purposes other than research.

Want to build a client engagement panel, incentivising respondents with your own product and taking direct steps as a consequence of that engagement? No problem, researchers can help with that. Is that research? No. Is it using research techniques? Most certainly. There is nothing wrong in being in the research business and using research techniques for non-research purposes. What is wrong is to assume that by using research techniques you must be doing a research project. And if this feels like MRSB and MRS being too pedantic, think again.

The MRS Code of Conduct and the MRSB are the self-regulatory compliance framework for research. In addition to being answerable to the sector we are also answerable to the government and associated regulators to ensure that we are setting appropriate rules and advising the sector accordingly. What we cannot do is ignore the legal framework which exists. Statistics and research are defined in legislation. In most applicable legislation, like the Data Protection Act 1998, research has specific exemptions which other activities such as direct marketing and sales promotion do not have. When researchers start building customer relationship panels for clients to engage with their customers this is clearly a promotional activity, which is regulated by additional data protection and electronic communications legislation. Not to follow the appropriate legislation would be illegal. Removing or losing the research exemptions would be detrimental to the sector.

MRS and MRSB wishes to embrace the exciting new fields which researchers are traversing and provide a framework for practitioners to undertake these exercises whilst doing so in an ethical and legal manner. The other half of this ‘psychological contract’ is researchers need to recognise the reality on the ground, work with MRS to improve understanding of the distinction between using research techniques and conducting research, and embrace the new changes introduced by the MRS Code.

Geoff Gosling is chairman of the Market Research Standards Board and a senior research director at Synovate.

@RESEARCH LIVE

4 Comments

10 years ago

Good piece Geoff. The distinction between reseasrch and promotion is, as you say, pretty clear and as you point out, doing research confers upon us some privileges (our ability to contact people) as well as attendant responsibilities. The blurred edge is mostly occurring, I feel, with the gradual move of research back to an in-house client-side function, with marketers in charge of the database and having dual responsibilities both to listen to their customers, and to promote to them. In my view researchers need to LOUDLY educate those in marketing (I'd throw in their PR people and ad agencies as well) about the distinctions you raise so well. Cheers

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10 years ago

As a long-term member of MRSB who has also been involved in the past in the discussions with the Information Commissioner for the MRS, I can confirm that market researchers need to tread very carefully and ensure that what they do under the heading market research does not cross the boundary into direct marketing and thereby put us once again in the ICO spotlight. As Geoff points out, there are ways to use market research methods for other purposes, but don't call it market research. The comment about marketers is interesting. When running market research data privacy workshops, a lot of the queries I get concern the pressure researchers feel from their clients to do things which could be infringements of the law as it stands - for example, providing details of respondents when confidentiality assurances have been given in the interviews. Researchers need to help educate their clients about what is, or is not, acceptable - if in doubt, contact MRS Codeline. As Ediitor of IJMR, I would welcome a Viewpoint on attitudes to data privacy and market research if anyone feels strongly enough about this topic to write one...........

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10 years ago

A useful post from Geoff, and it takes the discussion forward. I think one issue is that in the 1950s we were not aware that engaging in market research often changes the opinions of the subjects, so we could imagine we had no direct sales impact. These days we know that some research changes the view of respondents. The way things are currently going, I would expect most customer satisfaction, research communities, deliberative research, and in-house panels to directly impact sales. We need to avoid these approaches being confused with techniques where the sponsor of the research is not obvious. However, in achieving that separation we must avoid pushing this very large and growing part of the business away from our industry. As a quick aside to Peter's point about clients asking for things that are illegal, I find the main reason is that the agency has not briefed the client properly when the project was being set up. Telling a client after the fieldwork that they can't have X or Y is not as useful as discussing it before the fieldwork, and allowing either the process to be changed or expectations to be managed. Ray

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10 years ago

I understand completely the challenge of asking questions about your favourite chocolate bars if you happen to be a panel run by the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory and you then offer an incentive of a year chocolate bars for taking part in the survey. That said, the Institute of Directors has a bespoke panel, which offers IoD incentives, such as free tickets to IoD events and dinners that would otherwise cost the individual to attend. Interestingly, two difference prevail. Firstly, the members of the IoD's Panel are already IoD members, so they could be marketed to in many different ways. The research panel is not where we seek to do this. Seconly, and most importantly, we ask questions completely unrelated to the nature of the incentive. Typical subjects include public policy areas like regulation, taxation, economic conditions, transport and more. When the incentive is then so far removed from the subject matter covered in the survey I cannot see any reason why it would exert any influence on a respondent's views. Moreover, these members of the panel have effectively double-opted into the IoD, by becoming members and policy panelists. It does not seem unusual or innapropriate to offer them an incentive that reinforces their relationship with the IoD brand.

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