OPINION22 July 2020

When relevant stops meaning majority

Opinion UK

It is time for the market research industry to commit to representing minority audiences, writes Robert Agnew.

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Marginalisation of minority groups will not change overnight. Many of us are demonstrating our desire to do more, but this passion will undoubtedly turn to bluster unless sustainable channels continuously reflecting, reinforcing and rationalising the views of these groups are cemented.

One such channel (and a significant one at that) is the market research industry. It is our job, our purpose, perhaps even our duty as researchers to ensure relevant views are heard (reflect), actions are taken (reinforce), and societies, products, brands, workplaces, work more effectively for those they serve (rationalise).

There are of course a number of practical hurdles to representing minority audiences in research, particularly within data collection or fieldwork. Currently, reaching robust sample sizes of these groups is time-consuming and therefore expensive – UM's Michael Brown wrote last year that: “The average cost-per-interview (CPI) to research gay/bisexual men was £12 and £13 to research lesbian/bisexual women. In comparison, the CPI for sending a survey to a classic and all-too-generically named audience of ‘mums’ would be around £1.50.”

Compounding the issue is the fear brought about by GDPR legislation in handling sensitive data such as racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs; a person’s sex life or sexual orientation. With the stakes so high in mishandling this information as well as the potential to offend respondents, some providers are simply disengaging from relevant work altogether. But diligent practices supporting a by-the-book approach render this issue an excuse, rather than a roadblock.

These barriers are significant, but not insurmountable, and as such, it is hard to believe the issue will be solved by supply-side intervention alone. Asking, or even forcing, fieldwork providers to suffer commercially to correct this ethical issue will only result in poor workarounds and lip-service. A holistic solution founded in a clear understanding of both the commercial and ethical benefits, will force fieldwork providers to adapt and innovate, ensuring the industry makes a permanent and sustainable change toward representing these groups.

We are all clear on the ethics, but what are the commercial benefits in promoting the voices of minority groups? Well, in many cases, minority groups develop expertise on a range of topic areas from the foundations of experiencing injustice, and thus developing a desire for change. After all, change is always generated by an initial minority. And we all listen to experts.

This is neatly explained by Elise Roy when discussing how designing for disability results in benefits for all. She argued that if voices of disability are channelled effectively into the design of public buildings, their passion and perspective will lead to innovations that enable buildings to work better for everyone – minority thinking supporting majority outcome. Could the same not be true when listening to LGBTQ+ groups about toxic workplace culture? What about ethnic minorities’ experience of policing?

Without wholesale change to our perspective, our industry will be locked into legacy practices that prevent progressive actions. This is evident in current failings: our use of the consequences of breaking GDPR legislation as a reason not to collect views. Our broad categorisation of minorities, placing a number of hugely varying minorities into a single quota – nullifying any relevance in applying a minority quota in the first place. 

If the industry wants to do more than simply reflect majority opinion, then demand for minority perspective must increase. With technology and smart fieldwork practices abundant, and an array of passionate marginalised voices ready to commit their opinion to real change, we must desist from using practical barriers as excuses in preventing these voices from being heard.

It is time for the market research industry to commit to voices on the margins and generate positive change in our society, workplaces, brands and products. Whether achieved via codes of conduct that hold fieldwork providers to account on inflated costs, or strong voices in the industry (the Colour of Research – CORe – initiative is all too timely), or making it clear that the purpose of GDPR is to protect not silence, we must all play our part in securing the industry’s future. Most importantly, we must do our bit to prevent future injustices in people’s everyday lives. It does not have be just a job: it can be your purpose, or even considered your duty.   

Robert Agnew is managing director UK at Norstat