Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Social Media Research Debate Raises Questions About Industry's Future

Social Media Research Guidelines: Regulatory Preempt or Potential Handicap?

By Marc Dresner, IIR USA

In case you haven’t heard, market research has officially entered the age of “Big Data.”

This revelation came not by way of proclamation or edict, per se, but manifested itself in the earnest efforts of several key market research industry trade organizations this summer to wrap standards around the collection, analysis and use of data sourced from social media—primarily from an ethics/privacy standpoint.

ESOMAR in cooperation with CASRO respectively released guidelines for social media research (the latter’s are still in draft stage) and the UK’s MRS issued a discussion paper on the subject that will presumably lead to creation/adoption of standards along similar lines. I expect our other trade organizations will in short order follow suit with their own rules and/or officially defer to their sister orgs’ lead.

The primary concern and ostensible reason for these guidelines—aside from obviously trying to preempt regulation that could potentially harm the industry—centers on anonymity and informed consent with regard to data harvested in the online public domain (as opposed to conventional opt-in MROCs and comparable private gardens).

The problem is that these social media research subjects are not respondents, and securing informed consent is, under the circumstances, an unreasonable and unrealistic expectation. Protecting people’s identity is also more complicated than it seems, and proposals to “mask” individuals’ remarks, while promising, probably need a little more thought.

The only solution appears to be to apply principles akin to those governing passive observation practices in public spaces in the analogue world to the digital space, with a particular emphasis on two rules of thumb: 1. Do no harm and 2. Don’t sell.

Sounds perfectly reasonable. But as you probably already know or suspect, the matter isn’t quite cut-and-dried.

For those not up to speed, I strongly recommend as a primer listening to the recent “Great Market Research Privacy Debate” webcast organized by NewMR, MRGA, GreenBook and Next Gen Market Research.

Fascinating conversation on several fronts, not the least of which being that the panelists—including representatives from the trade organizations mentioned above—to varying degrees addressed the question of whether or not the imposition of any guidelines governing social media research is a fool’s errand.

Compelling arguments were made on both sides, but the jury is still out.

Personally, I’m inclined to agree with GreenBook’s Editor-in-Chief, Leonard Murphy, who hosted the debate and blogged afterward that such guidelines, while well-intentioned, are unenforceable. (Check his full commentary here—an exceptionally insightful and provocative read!)

I would also stress that they may potentially put law-abiding research citizens at a competitive disadvantage.

Facebook, for example, has been dogged by privacy complaints for years, but I could see why a research provider would rather put the onus on Facebook’s ToS than defer to a trade association’s guidelines in a world where companies that don’t fit the conventional research mold and don’t have any interest in doing so are unencumbered by the additional layer of rules I’m following.

I’m not suggesting that the ability to effectively compete and adherence to research guidelines are mutually exclusive, nor that researchers should abandon core principles, but I wonder whether the industry’s efforts to self-regulate in order to avoid being regulated in this case may handicap it.

Here I’ll circle back to the “Great Market Research Privacy Debate,” whose purpose was, in part, to explore how to reconcile research orthodoxy with today’s reality.

Panelist Ray Poynter, EVP at Vision Critical and author of “The Handbook of Online and Social Media Research,” suggested that in an “attempt to stay ever purer” the industry’s professional organizations are effectively narrowing the definition of market research to methodologies and practices that constitute a shrinking portion of the overall sphere of commercial insight/information services.

Panelist Tom Anderson, CEO of Anderson Analytics and Founder/Chairman of Next Gen Market Research—an outspoken critic of research association policies in the past—argued that non-traditional techniques like social listening and text analytics are an entirely different animal from traditional response-based research and shouldn’t even fall under the jurisdiction of establishment research organizations whose primary constituents, Anderson suggested, lack the expertise and incentive to craft suitable guidelines. (Tom elaborated on the topic here.)

I inferred from this that Tom considers social media analytics to belong to a new incarnation of the research industry, one that includes players that don’t necessarily identify as market research companies.

If that’s the case, is market research suffering from an identity crisis? What distinguishes “legit” market research from, say, information services provided by Facebook?

At the end of day, I believe it’s really the client’s call.

Coca-Cola’s current global research head, Stan Sthanunathan, predicted a few years ago that Facebook, Google and the like will eventually become major competitors with top Honomichl firms. And he stands by this claim today. (I know because I just interviewed him for our podcast series, The Research Insighter—shameless plug, I know.)

And Michelle Adams, PepsiCo’s head of shopper insights, recently remarked that research “has become a game of connecting the dots, thinking like a consultant and being able to pull all kinds of disparate information together to tell a story that will grow the business. The skills and expertise required for the role today make staffing for success difficult. There’s enormous pressure to evolve the function into something much more than it was historically.”

Adams also said that “social analytics is where we’re moving, and data analytics will be the research currency of tomorrow.”

So as the industry draws its line in the sand in a world of rapid, continuous change, are we at risk of regulating ourselves into irrelevance?


Chris said...

Thanks Marc - interesting article. As a client-side researcher and statistician, I'm often finding myself in the role of story-telling and connecting the dots. It's great to be able to run a sound research project - that's almost a given and an expected skillset (it's why I was hired). But I also need to tell the story about why it matters to our business and what business leaders here can do about this information. I call it 'actionable insight'. It's about taking the data, explaining its relevance AND explaining what actions the business should take with this data. That used to describe the role of a consultant but now it's the job of a researcher and, honestly, I think researchers are in a great position to take advantage of this. Researchers have the innate understanding of data and can use business skills (from University and work experience) to apply that deep understanding to the business model. I'm excited to see the industry changing in this way.

Tom H C Anderson said...

Great Summary Marc!

Marc Dresner said...

Thanks Chris! I think your assessment is absolutely right on, although I wonder how much progress we've made up to this point. I'm posting a podcast interview w/ Stan Sthanunathan of Coca-Cola here today, and he's got some pretty strong opinions on the matter. I would love to hear what you think.

Marc Dresner said...

Tom - It's I who should be thanking you for bringing terrific perspective and insight to the debate! I hope our readers took the opportunity to visit your blog on the topic here:

It's such an important issue, and I'm sure we haven't heard the last on this...