OPINION21 July 2021

Redefining ‘nat rep’ research

Opinion Trends UK

Everyone in research has a role to play in making sample more representative, says Rebecca Cole, outlining continued industry efforts to improve representation.

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Until recently, there has been a relative lack of urgency in addressing questions around inclusion and representation within research and whether the traditional understanding of ‘nationally representative’ (‘nat rep’) – typically restricted to age, gender, social grade and region – is fit for purpose.

Without a doubt this is changing, and it is fast becoming a topic at the very top of the research agenda. As MRS CEO Jane Frost put it: “Voices are rising, our job is to ensure they are heard and get to be understood.”

In early 2021, the Market Research Society (MRS) asked me to chair a steering group tasked with investigating representation in research and engaging with the sector on the topic. The journey towards improvement in this area is one that all research practitioners need to take together – and MRS is committed to it being a consultative and collective undertaking.

Our initial aim was to understand how the sector is approaching this currently: How is ‘nat rep’ defined and is it still useful and relevant? What are the barriers to more representative samples? And what does MRS need to provide to the sector in terms of resources and support?

To get an initial sense of these questions, we ran a piece of qualitative research which invited agencies, panel providers and clients to a series of round table discussions. On behalf of the steering group, I would like to thank Acacia Avenue, Empower Translate and Take Note for their help and efforts in producing the qualitative research piece.

The main headlines coming out of the groups were:

Appetite is growing: Companies across the board and through the chain of research are taking diversity and inclusion seriously. Clients are increasingly demanding that their suppliers have clear credentials when it comes to inclusion. As one client participant said: “Diversity and inclusion, it’s not just a trend. It’s something that makes strategic sense for any corporate business, and it should be a policy”.

Everyone has a role: Every link in the chain of research recognises that they have a responsibility in affecting change. All parties need to identify in which areas their responsibility lies and take action, and 360-degree collaboration and improvement is key.

Anxiety exists: With any sensitive topic, there’s discomfort at risking ‘getting it wrong’. There is a sense of anxiety and a lack of confidence at how to approach the topic, and a large appetite to define best practice and guidelines to remove this anxiety.

Unity is essential: A recurring theme was the belief that the sector needs to come together behind one clear and agreed set of ‘best practices’ in this space. This will only happen with an open consultation approach where all can have input.  

The insight gained from the focus groups was used to create an action agenda for 2021. The main pillars of focus will be providing resources and clarification, engaging stakeholders to advance the conversation and increase collaboration, and showcasing and encouraging examples of best practice.

Specific projects we are undertaking in the second half of the year include:

‘Frequently asked questions’ document: The provision of one single document that addresses common questions and links to relevant advice and resources. This document will be published by late summer 2021, and the representation in research group would welcome any suggestions that interested parties have for questions to include.

Best practice guides: It is essential that research practitioners can be confident on how to ask ethnicity, sexual orientation, and physical ability in an inclusive way, so we will be producing best practice guides on all of these. We will also be conducting a review of the existing best practice guide on asking sex and gender. Information on how MRS is liaising with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) along with timings for these can be found here.

Quantitative research: Evidence matters! We have commissioned a quantitative survey that will benchmark current practice and track improvements going forwards. This piece will be published by the end of the year, and then conducted annually.

Commercial benefits: The group has also commissioned a research piece investigating potential insight and research benefits to using an ‘inclusive nat rep’ sample as opposed to a more ‘traditional nat rep’ sample. This piece will be published by the end of the year.

To ensure that the work we are doing is informed by all groups that seek equal and fair representation, MRS will be engaging and consulting with multiple other groups across the industry for their input, including the MRS DI&E council, MRS Pride, CORe and MRS Unlimited (and others), as well as liaising with international bodies to look for synergy and collaboration opportunities.

If this topic is something that you are interested in and would like to start a conversation about, please contact anyone on the steering group.

Rebecca Cole is managing director at Cobalt Sky and chair of the representation in research steering group


3 years ago

I'll be curious to see whether the quant study shows a commercial benefit for more inclusive rep samples and what we'll do when they don't show a benefit. I'm thinking FMCG research here, not social issues research.

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3 years ago

Yes, we've been reflecting on that too as part of the group. The commercial piece is designed to cover a range of benefits (social, reputational etc.), not only the financials. Personally I believe many FMCG brands are already invested in this conversation as they acknowledge the longer-term benefits of genuine representation and inclusivity in their research and its resulting calls to action, but time will tell!

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