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OPINION29 October 2009

Getting to grips with new ideas, and dusting off some old ones

Opinion

Annie Pettit says the Esomar Online Research Conference in Chicago signalled a fundamental change in thinking – throwing up exciting new ideas, as well as re-examining some old ones, and questioning long-held assumptions.

The Esomar Online Conference in Chicago is the first conference I’ve attended where I’ve not been a presenter. That meant I actually had time to listen (one of the major themes here) and digest the implications of what I heard.

Two major themes bubbled up throughout various presentations for me. First, the direction of the marketing research industry seems to be shifting away from examining and improving our existing processes, and towards completely rethinking them and developing new ones. Surveys have played a huge role in our industry for decades, and I suspect they will continue to do so, but change is happening very quickly.

“The direction of the marketing research industry seems to be shifting away from examining and improving our existing processes, and towards completely rethinking them and developing new ones”

Mobile research is one of those new processes, even though it has been a topic of interest for several years now. We’ve finally reached a point in smartphone technology and penetration where it just might be feasible to conduct mobile phone surveys on a much larger, more actionable and useful scale. I must admit, however, that I remain a skeptic. The idea is great: quick surveys at the point of interest. But I really can’t see myself stopping at the moment of purchase to answer five quick questions about why I chose this store or this style or this colour. When it comes right down to it, a mobile survey is just a survey wrapped up in a phone-shaped box, and we’ve already annoyed an entire generation of survey takers with our attempts to keep them engaged with surveys wrapped up in a paper or internet-shaped boxes.

For those removed from the qualitative point of view, co-creation may seem like a new and wonderful concept. Unlike a survey situation, where participants are removed from each other, co-creation requires that people work together, possibly under the guidance of some kind of moderator, to create new ideas together. I wonder if co-creation is really focus groups with a side helping of social media research.

And since we’re on that topic, social media research (or ‘netnography’) was getting some serious attention. It came up over and over again. While I don’t think the idea of netnography is new, I do feel that, like mobile surveys, internet penetration and social media penetration have reached levels where researchers can consider netnography to be a viable data source or research method. Everyone knows about Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, and let’s face it, if you don’t, marketers probably don’t want to talk to you.

The second major theme that I drew from the conference was an underlying concern for the human subject, the responder, the participant, the co-creator. Yes, the co-creator. We have really evolved our terminology over the years to increase the level of perceived respect towards the people who put the bread on our table (that’s right, perceived respect). The ARF quality initiative, the Esomar 26 questions, and ISO certification all brought to the forefront an old and sometimes forgotten rule, the golden rule: treat others ­– co-creators, if you will – the same way you would want to be treated. Does this mean 40-minute surveys? Does this mean throwing a telephone survey word for word on the internet? I think not. But somehow we’ve managed to get to a state where governing bodies decided that they had to turn this golden rule into an official guideline.

“Survey responders have been voting for their preferred methodologies in high numbers over the last few years. Their votes have been against surveys and for fun, new, and unusual”

Qualitative researchers have an ingrained respect for their co-creators as they deal with them on a personal level every single day. On the other hand, I suspect that many quantitative researchers have become removed from those personal interactions to the point where they forget that panels are people. This is why response rates have dropped, and this is why we’re trying to improve levels of engagement through, you guessed it, alternative methods.

Quant surveys do and always will serve a great purpose. But this conference re-opened our eyes to some old-but-new methods, and some old-but-new responder perceptions. Survey responders have been voting for their preferred methodologies in high numbers over the last few years. Their votes have been against surveys and for fun, new, and unusual. If we combine our new found technologies with our new found golden rule, our industry will remain strong and proud.

Annie Pettit runs Annie Pettit Consulting, specialising in online market research. She blogs at lovestats.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter as @lovestats.

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