Here’s the Problem with Social Media Research Ethics #MRX

Immanuel Kant developed his own version of the...

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Wherever I may wander, wherever I may roam, I always come across a divide in the interpretation of market research ethics. Some people think all market research must be permission based. Other people think anything in the public eye is fair game. The gap therein is wide, rife with arguments, and seemingly unsolveable. But I think I’ve figured out what the problem is.

Many people playing in the market research sandbox have no training in market research. They did NOT take an undergraduate degree in market research. They did NOT take statistics and research methods and research ethics courses in school. They did NOT take philosophy or medical or psychology or sociology courses in ethics. They have NOT taken certification courses offered by market research institutions. In fact, many people playing in the market research sandbox come from computer science, database management, and many other non-social science research spaces. They don’t have the same understanding of people as market researchers do.

Our industry is suffering from a massive influx of workers with insufficient or no training in important market research skills and knowledge. Sure, you can pick up things on the job, from your colleagues, from mentors, from conferences, from webinars, and from many other places. But you can’t pick up everything and you can’t pick up everything correctly. And you certainly can’t pick up research ethics without the careful guidance of someone who has spent decades debating that issue with trained and respected colleagues.

It is only with appropriate training that we will be able to reduce the gap. The gap will always be there but as more of us better understood the human condition and the rules that go along with using humans as data points, there will be more points of agreement. So raise your voice. Raise your voice every time it’s needed.

22 responses

  1. […] studies are acceptable provided they require a lot of resources to undertake in order to discourage anyone who may misuse the […]

  2. I would add that research companies need to stop supporting bad research. This industry seems to love lists that rank research companies…I see mentions of theses rankings in ads all the time — even though they will admit that the research behind such rankings in majorly flawed and that they are nothing more than popularity contests. This sort of vanity will kill the industry.

  3. Great thoughts and Ann thank you for surfacing this point. While I agree with comments, I also think that we, researcher, should also ask ourselves on what contributions we have made to the industry. Talking about education, MRIA is still struggling to promote CMRP designation. I am not saying that CMRP is everything you need but at least there is some initiative. I think we all have to take concrete steps. Honestly, MRIA courses are good but are still the same, okay almost almost, from last 5 years. It’s not MRIA fault but us the ones who formulate the industry.

    1. Have you approached the MRIA to offer your expertise in teaching new courses? 🙂

    2. I would love to offer but I am not a expert and am making my ways towards it. Our industry has high number of amazing experts and subject matter experts with at least a decade of experiences.

  4. Good points Annie. I’m on of those people stuck on the fence with social media research ethics myself but definitely appreciate your points. As a client-side researcher who also manages our social media, I’m peppered with requests for “more information” on our audience (which is code for ‘can we turn them into leads if they say something nice about us’). And I’m always very careful to steer the lead-requests away from social media because I don’t think it’s the right place unless someone specifically fills out a form saying they want to be contacted. So while agencies are looking at the ethics of using social media data, I’m taking a stance internally about not using the data for anything other than research because that’s the minimum that’s expected internally (it’s our compromise, no leads if I produce research). And yep, I took plenty of ethics classes in my social science degrees. 🙂

    1. Glad to hear it. We need more people like you

    2. I live in both worlds. I worked in Marketing Communications for 8 years AND I have an M.S. in Marketing Research. In this case, I guess the question is what is consent? Isn’t someone engaging with your company/product on SM implicit consent to be contacted about the product? I am assuming you are talking about someone, who otherwise has made no contact with your company, making an off hand comment like, “Just had a [insert product here] it was delicious.” And your company has some sort of search in place to find these comments. In that case, I think the rules of SM encourage engagement. Now that doesn’t mean you contact them and say, “You should buy more of our product!!!” But, it is wise to cultivate that interest with a thank you, or “Glad you liked it, wait until next month when we deliver a new product.” That is the definition of marketing, even by the AMA’s standards. (“Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”)

      From your post above, I guess my question for you is: How do you engage people on SM? It sounds like your company policy is to never contact people over SM. That seems odd to me.

      I understand the ethical quandary of data mining someone’s SM profiles. Although, personally, I believe if you put something out in public, I shouldn’t have to pretend I didn’t see it. Now, that doesn’t mean I should just “pop the hood” and see everywhere your browser has been. But if people are putting out in public all the things they like, as a marketer and researcher, aren’t you falling short of your obligations if you don’t try making connections? This has been done informally for a long time.

      I will give you a perfect example. I used to work in PR. We had lots of restaurant clients (an ethical quandary of its own). Whenever we went to a restaurant, particularly a competitor, we would ask lots of questions: “Are you always this busy?” “What do people usually order here?” “What do people say is the best?” “Is this your typical crowd?” It was innocent conversation, but we were charting all this information and keeping it in mind when thinking about our client.

      I think the uproar over the use of this information isn’t that people are doing it–people have been trading personal information in exchange for content/entertainment for decades. No, in my view, the problem is that with Web 2.0/SM, we can be really precise about it.

      Still, it isn’t perfect. The long tail of SM and the Internet opens up more Type 1 errors and, I will be the first one to admit that it is a little creepy when I visit a couple of websites and then for the next week, their ads are following me everywhere I go on the Internet.

      So, I guess that long winded explanation is to say, I don’t think not using SM data for research/lead generation is good way to do things. But just like there are black hat and white hat SEO tactics, it would be good to establish black/white hat SMR guidelines–particular with an interest toward reducing Type 1 errors–which are the biggest concerns of people for their privacy.

    3. Glad to see you’ve thought so carefully about this. We need more people like you. 🙂

  5. I think there’s probably more ‘certified market researchers’ faking “social media research” than the other way around.

  6. I agree with Annie that there are a lot of people and companies out there “faking it” these days. To me, the issue here is related to whether market research is a profession or whether it is something else — and also to whether having the training/certification earns you the right to be credible.

    Re the first item, you would never let someone practice law if they hadn’t graduated from law school. On the other hand, do we say that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were not truly CEOs because they didn’t have college degrees or any kind of business training?

    We must hold reseachers to a high standard on many levels, but, like Dan, I have seen fantastic research coming out of people who don’t have the formal training, and I have seen absolute junk from a few who profess to have the degrees. We need to have the courage to call people on shabby quality who disregard research ethics — and equally, the courage to acknowledge breakthroughs, even from new/untrained entrants.

    1. Yup, certification doesn’t always mean that someone is qualified. As friend told me, they passed Kindergarten but they forgot everything they learned there. I wish there was a trusted way for clients to be able to see the difference between quality and faking it. Onware we trudge. Thanks for you comment Diane.

  7. Very interesting – I think while it’s always good to have a diverse group of people with a wide range of backgrounds, in this case it’s hard to learn research methods “on the job”.

    Love this post – would you mind re-posting it in a group I just started for our MR clients on LinkedIn? Thanks! -Brenna

  8. Thanks for starting this conversation, Annie. As a fellow, classically trained social scientist, I certainly understand what you’re getting at.

    I am surprised how many people have “fallen into” market research. I support the professionalization of the CMRP for this reason — the more people who have a “canon” of ethics, methodology, and methods, the better. For all of us.

    That doesn’t mean “no more diversity”; it means we all have the same base level of knowledge.

    I got so much value out of my own training that I cannot imagine why anyone wouldn’t want more, particularly if they’re not trained in sociology, anthropology, psychology or other social science. It’s actually a thing you can study! Like, with its own theories and everything! Those without this knowledge really don’t know what they’re missing.

    Thanks for posting!

    1. Glad to hear it. Let’s keep on promoting our cause. 🙂

  9. Enjoyed reading your blog as always Annie. However, I tend to disagree (for once) with your somewhat exclusive stand here. One of the main reasons that I like the market research industry is precisely because of the diverse backgrounds that people bring to our field. Innovation is often fostered in exactly that interdisciplinary space and though formal training is great and should be advanced to ensure that the basic professional skills are well covered, I really don’t think that ethics has much to do with this. I’ve met trained market researchers that scared the heck out of me in this regard – while others with little formal educational background in market research praised and lived by our industry’s codes of conduct. While you are a rare covergirl in terms of the vast curricula you’ve sat through, it is no prerequisite for a sound set of ethics. While courses and training will surely broaden your perspective and provide you guidance, ethics to me is something much more existential… more about heritage and the cultural environment in which we grow up.

    Moreover, while I have a deep respect for academia, in retrospect I’ve learned more about both ethics and people when I travelled the world, when I spent three years in Bosnia and Kosovo during the conflicts there or while I was teaching courses in my ‘past life’ as an emergency management officer, than I have in any university or business school courses. That said, I’d agree that particularly those that enter our industry from a technological background often appear to perceive ethics in ways that pose a challenge to traditional market research. This is clearly the case with Social Media Research – and even more so with analytics (to the extent that we define this as market research). But the thing is… we need them! And perhaps it’s a good thing that our codes are brought into question now and then – because it forces us to reconsider why they are there and why we still need them as much as ever.
    Anyway, I’ve raised my voice to the best of my abilities on this issue and will continue to do so, online or offline.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. All points well taken and appreciated. Keep up the good fight. 🙂

  10. […] the rest here: Here's the Problem with Social Media Research Ethics #MRX | The … Comments […]

  11. Can ethics and research standards keep up with best or current practices? I noticed my last edition market research textbook doesn’t even refer to social media monitoring. How do we “encourage”people to take courses? How do we keep up with exponential changes in the industry?

    1. I think rules and guidelines will never keep up. BUT, there is one fundamental thing we can do. Those of us who do hear and learn about up and coming issues need to share them not just in the online space, the keener or early adopter space, but also in the offline space. It might be tons of fun to debate the issues with our Twitter friends but we need to bring it back into the boardroom to our colleagues sitting right beside who never go online, who don’t get the magazines, who don’t attend the conferences and events. It’s a gigantic issue.

  12. Excellent points. The worst part is when people who should know better are dismissive of the issues you raise. IMO it’s one of the trends undermining the value of the field.

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