The UK's MRS has announced that one of the key elements of their new code of conduct is a strengthened interpretation banning the use of clients' products as incentives.
The historical reason for this rule is that a client incentive can be seen as distorting the market. For example, if everybody who takes part in a hall test is given a chocolate bar as an incentive, that might reduce the market opportunity for other brands to the tune of one market bar. Similarly, a game console research that offers a prize draw to win one of ten games consoles, means that ten of the respondents end up with the client's products, do not buy the competitor products, and will probably go on to buy branded games.
More recently the MRS have been making the point that the Information Commissioner's Office has been saying that giving client incentives could count as direct marketing. The importance of this guidance is that at the moment, in the UK, market research enjoys some exemptions from the Data Protection Act, which makes our life a tad easier, and market research could lose these exemptions if we annoy the Commissioner.
However, researchers have already started to highlight concerns about this new, stronger, interpretation.
One area researchers have highlighted is customer satisfaction, where client related incentives reduce the cost of research and appear to be more 'natural' to respondents than 'independent' incentives. Indeed, some researchers worry that the new interpretation will make many studies more expensive, at a time when buyers and providers of research are struggling with falling budgets.
I worry that this rule/interpretation ignores the wishes of some respondents, falling back into the mindset that we (the researchers) make the rules, and respondents should do as they are told.
As well as some customer satisfaction research, I think this rule will drive more online research communities out of the Market Research domain. Some researchers have found that when people sign up to an ongoing branded community, for example drinkers of a specific coffee brand, what they expect as their compensation is brand related, such as visits to the factory, news about product launches and changes, a chance to try new products, and yes product related incentives. People join a branded community because they want to improve that brand, they want to be hear, they want to be respected, and they often want to be more associated with the brand. A neutral incentive, such as cash or Amazon vouchers, changes the mindset of the community members, away from collaboration to being 'paid'.
I think might experience a significant schism in the research industry in the next few years, and I think the two sides of the argument are likely to be:
- Technocracy: People who believe that research is, and/or could be, based on scientific principles of sampling theory, of analysis, of ‘house of quality’ procedures, of being independent of the client and the respondent, and of being the unobserved, passive observer. For these people, research is something we do to people.
- Democracy: People who believe that what happens to respondents’ data should be determined by respondents, people who believe that customers and participants should have a major (possibly the primary role) in establishing the rules about what researchers can and can’t do. For these people, research is something we do with people.
I have chosen the term schism to highlight the potential for researchers to fall out in the way that religions have in the past. I fear that people will start hurling comments such as ‘heretic’ and anti-science.