Mugging, Sugging and now Rugging: I take a hard stance on privacy

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At the Esomar conference in Chicago last year, a speaker commented on how one could send out surveys and then follow up with targeted sales calls. Someone politely corrected him a few minutes later because “sugging,” selling under the guise of research, is not an ethical practice. Clearly, the MR rules are not well known outside our immediate industry.

The exploding popularity of social media has opened the door for many new companies in the field of SM monitoring. Their bread and butter is finding out who is saying what about your brand so that you may counteract any negative happenings. Since every online post is linked to a person, often even the real name of a person, it is very easy for those companies to directly communicate with those people.

In market research, privacy and anonymity are our Prime Directives. We do not reveal names. We do not interfere with people. We do not try to change their opinions. We DO listen, learn, and try to solve business problems on a group level.

Are we about to encounter a new type of “ugging” then? “Rugging” refers to replying under the guise of research. This means that in the course of carrying out social media research, someone takes the step of replying to someone whose data just happens to appears in the research data set. The person didn’t asked to participate and they didn’t respond to a question.

For me, this is in direct violation of the Prime Directive. Sure, the internet is open. Sure, the links and names are readily available to everyone. But that doesn’t make it right. People need to be able to express their honest opinions without worrying that some big company is going to try to change their opinions. People need to retain their right to choose when they want to interact with a company. People need to maintain ownership of who they communicate with.

The internet is not an equal playing field. There are billion dollar companies with thousands of IT professionals, lawyers, and SME. Then there are little old ladies who just typed out their first youtube comment. Do not even try to convince me that “she ought to know” or “well that’s just too bad.”

Not everyone knows the rules of the game. That is not their fault. In the research world, we have taken an oath of sorts to protect the people who share their opinions. Whether they provide survey data or SM data, we owe it to them.

I hope you feel that way too.

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5 responses

  1. Good points! I always thought that the privacy issue is the top priority when we are doing research, unless the respondents consent that the company can follow up to address the issues that made them dissatisfied/unhappy with the services. In my previous jobs, I needed to write a protocol for an IRB review, in which how we are going to use the data, who in my company have the access to the data, who can see the research results, and etc. are all addressed. (It usually takes few weeks to get approval) Along the course of the research, I also need to report to the IRB if any issues that violate the protocol come up (my previous job is more like in an academic area.) When I switch to do survey in a market research industry, I found that the policies toward privacy concerns are not that strict. It took me a while to digest this reality…

  2. I disagree with you a bit.

    The market research ethics having to do with survey research are not so clearly ported over to social media where the end user is interacting with the knowledge that what they say is public.

    I’ve got many examples of how customers actually want/expect companies to interact with them based on what they have said on the internet.

    By the way, posted on the new Tepurpedic ad on my blog today (www.tomhcanderson.com). Thouht it was cool how they are encouraging consumers to do their own social media research.

  3. LOL, I think that polite person was me

    I wasn’t sure anyone had noticed ;)

  4. Good points well made, Annie. Reading this reminded me of a telecoms client from a few years ago. We ran an international cust-sat survey for them. Generally the results were OK but there were a few accounts feeding back some really useful, actionable but perceived as negative comments. Our client’s customers were able to communicate their dissatisfaction because they were promised anonymity. These customers were sharing their concerns because they had a respect for their supplier yet could see a better service should be delivered in some areas.

    However, our client was more interested in finding out the names of those making the comments so they could make direct contact to “address the issues” than they were with listening to what they were saying. In the end we parted ways; us upholding the laws of the land, them shooting the messenger.

    1. I’m delighted that you held up on your end. Upholding the laws of the land was the right thing to do. If clients want to address the issues, they need to realize that it isn’t just that one person with the issue. They need to deal with the entire subsample of people with that opinion. And that problem isn’t solved by interfering with a single person’s privacy.

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