OPINION6 August 2009

The question isn’t what research is. It’s what research will be


CMOR is attempting to agree a definition of market research in order to protect it from potential threats. But the move comes at a time when views of what research is – or should be – are in flux.


What is research? It sounds like just the sort of irritating, navel-gazing question that researchers are often criticised for getting bogged down in when they should be thinking about something useful. But this time it has been raised for some serious practical reasons. CMOR, which lobbies government on behalf of the research industry in the US, is looking to come up with a definition to help protect research against possible legislative threats (you can read its draft version here). This is not just theorising. It’s a case of articulating to the government and the public what the industry is for, and why its interests need to be protected.

As CMOR’s director of government affairs Howard Fienberg points out, research frequently has to say what it is not, but doesn’t often get round to saying what it is. The reason for this is that the industry is built on the shaky ground of the public’s goodwill, and must frequently distinguish and disassociate itself from practices that the public sees as irritating (sales, direct marketing), disingenuous (sugging, push polls) or just criminal (mystery shopping scams).

CMOR’s definition comes in response to new dangers in the form of rules designed to stop intrusions on people’s lives, so it’s not surprising that it uses up 24 of its 64 words setting out what research is not. In particular, the advent of do-not-call lists and online behavioural tracking has heightened the need for clarity on what is and isn’t legitimate research, and the rise of DIY research tools increases the risk of amateurs carelessly blurring these distinctions.

These might seem like fairly straightforward matters to deal with for anyone who makes their living in research, but for legislators they can be rather more difficult to grasp. Last year, Randall Rothenberg of the Interactive Advertising Bureau complained that the definition of behavioural targeting used in a bill before the New York State Assembly was “basically the definition of advertising research”. Worrying news, given the kind of public image that behavioural targeting has earned for itself.

In the US, where there is no overarching data protection or privacy law, such issues are only just raising their heads as legislators respond to threats arising from the proliferation of digital data on the internet. But even in Germany, where research enjoys the protected status of an applied science, and where data protection is well established, the market research industry can still find it hard to get its point across to lawmakers. Earlier this year it narrowly escaped being lumped in with direct marketing under new rules designed to control the use of people’s personal data. After lobbying by research associations, opinion and marketing research were granted an explicit exemption. But Wolfgang Dittrich, who chairs the association BVM, said that before industry representatives intervened, the lawmakers “just didn’t really understand how market research works”.

But quite aside from these challenges, CMOR has picked a difficult time to start drawing up a definition of MR, because it is also a time when the conventional understanding of research is being challenged. The rise of the internet and social media has caused the received wisdom to be questioned on issues including sampling, anonymity, the relationship between researchers and participants, and whether there aren’t better ways to understand what people think, feel and do than just asking them. Panels, online communities, neuromarketing, co-creation, buzz tracking and the wisdom of crowds are all altering our perception of what is reliable and valuable in the field of research. It’s hard to say at this stage how much of all this will last, and whether long-cherished standards will really be cast aside. But change is definitely in the air.

When we reported CMOR’s work on the definition earlier this week, a couple of commentators suggested that it needed to take a more positive focus on the outcomes and aims of research – on what it provides, rather than how it provides it. With all this change going on, that would be one way to avoid the risk of ending up with a definition of what research was, rather than what it is or will be.

1 Comment

15 years ago

Randall Rothenberg and those marketers and politicians who believe that behavioral targeting is market research are weak in both the history and science of the field. Medical scientists do not hold pillows over the faces of patients and suffocate them to identify a lack of oxygen to the brain as a factor in brain damage and death. This scientific fact was found by observation of breathing, oxygen, in real life and experimental settings so the factors associated with this phenomenon could be understood. Similarly marketing research is never done on a total population in which purchasing the product in the outcome. Research is used to identify needs, wants and attitudes that could understand buying behavior and and make the product more useful to the person who buys it -- resulting in greater satisfaction. It is always done on a sample (not a population) and the respondent chosen is never forced to buy a product with her own money to provide the outcome. Past behavior is not the most efficient way to define future behavior -- but a knowledge of the factors that led up to a past behavior is a better way to predict a future behavior and a more satisfied customer. Two decades ago, at an attitude research conference, I made the point in a paper that "attitudes predict behavior better than behavior predicts behavior." That still applies. Just because there are cheap data mining techniques that can track behavior and come to conclusions based on past behavior, doesn't mean we know how to increase satisfaction and make the marketing behavior positive to the consumer. That's not research, that's suffocating the patient to prove you're right.

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