Many thanks to the people who have commented on my posts about MROCs, Community Panels, and other communities. My work on the article I am writing has now moved specifically to ethics and I want to share my views on the current situation.
Ethics and Social Media Research
Social media research has created a new range of problems for market researchers to grapple with, some of the problems relate to traditional issues but in a new context, other challenges are new and particular to social media. The key issues that social media research raises are:
- Informed consent.
- The conflation of market research and marketing.
- The trustworthiness of the findings.
The term ‘informed consent’ has been used by researchers for over fifty years, and for most of that time its meaning has been fairly clear, but now times have changed, challenging both the definition of ‘informed’ and ‘consent’, and of course the combination of the two.
In terms of social media monitoring, researchers have to consider whether they have the authors’ consent to read posts and comments, and if they do have consent, are the author’s necessarily informed about what they have consented to? The potential risk to the reputation of market research was well illustrated by the Nielsen and PatientsLikeMe case. Back in 2010, PatientsLikeMe, an online community where members share stories and personal experiences, discovered that somebody was ‘scraping’ information from their site. PatientsLikeMe investigated it and found that Nielsen were scraping private discussions to provide social media monitoring information for their clients. The news broke in the form of a Wall Street Journal article exposing and criticising Nielsen and quoting a community member who said they “felt totally violated”. Nielsen rapidly realised they had crossed the line, apologised, and promised never to repeat the mistake, but the image of market research in general and Nielsen in particular will take a long time to recover.
Within the context of communities and panels the trend is towards integrating a wide range of data, including images from smartphonea, tracking web browsing, and monitoring social media usage. This process has tended to be preceded by consent, but questions have been asked about whether it is ‘informed’ consent, are the participants truly aware of the sorts of information they are passively sharing? For example, in January 2011 TNS Gallup in Denmark withdrew its Webprofil product that tracked community members; although the members had consented, it transpired that many of them had not understood the implications.
Traditional market research is based on an assumption that the respondent remains anonymous; however social media research challenges that principle. In communities there is a risk that the anonymity of participants will be compromised, in terms of researchers, clients, and each other; and the risk grows over time, especially if participants are allowed to use photos of themselves as their avatars.
Social media monitoring tools are often capable of reporting who is saying what, and identifying those people across different strands of social media. This is really useful to marketers, but is in direct contravention of market research traditions. Another problem arises with the use of literal quotes mined from social media monitoring. If a literal quote is reported to the client it will often be possible for the client to identify the respondent who made the comment by using a search engine or community search function.
The conflation of market research and marketing
Social media research tends to blur the distinction between marketing and market research. One of the by-products of people being a member of a well-run branded, private community is that they tend to become brand advocates, leading to increased consumption of the brand’s services/products, and to positive word of mouth, which again is against the traditional views of market research that the process should not, itself, change the market.
In terms of social media monitoring, many of the tools give the end-client the chance to drill down to specific comments and individuals. This is part of what these tools were designed to do, but it is at odds with the traditional rules of market research.
The trustworthiness of findings from social media research
Traditional quantitative research, with assumptions of random probability sampling, has well established methods of assessing its reliability and validity. The methods of assessing the reliability and validity of qualitative research are less precise, but again are well established. By contrast, the reliability and validity of social media research, especially social media monitoring, do not benefit from any established methods of assessing their trustworthiness. At the NewMR Listening is the New Asking event Annie Pettit showed how sampling from different media produced different results, as did subtle differences in the terms searched for.
For the time being researchers utilising social media research need to ensure that the client is aware of what inferences they should draw from the research.
Where next for social media research and ethics?
The major trade bodies, for example CASRO, ESOMAR, MRA/IMRO etc are all working on new guidelines, or have recently published new guidelines, in an attempt to bring social media research into the broader structure of market research. However, it is unlikely that most of the successful implementations of social media research will be able to meet the requirements of: anonymity, scientific criteria of reliability, or any clear separation from marketing, something that will either result in the rules being changed or a large part of social media research being conducted outside of the regulations and guidelines of the trade bodies, perhaps by it being conducted outside of what is recognised as market research.