Some market and media researchers have moved from expensive random digit dialing, mailings and in-person research to the significantly less pricey platform of online research.
At first, purists complained about quality, yammering that the Internet is not representative and online samples are not randomly drawn. But the business pragmatists ruled and dollars moved, because the bottom line was fast, cheap research versus slow, expensive research.
Now, a decade later, online research is in a crisis of confidence. Inconsistent results from the cheap online research factories are becoming an industry embarrassment.
Last year at an industry roundtable, Kim Dedeker, vice president of consumer and market knowledge for Procter & Gamble, announced that two of the company's recent online surveys from the same research provider, conducted one week apart, reported diametrically opposed results. P&G, the world's biggest purchaser of survey research, publicly expressed concern.
In a stark commentary sounding like the emperor has no clothes, one research company reported that 0.25 percent of the online population accounts for 32 percent of respondents in online surveys, with less than 5 percent accounting for more than half of the respondents.
The advertising community got spooked, and the Advertising Research Foundation responded with a new council, the new Online Research Quality Council. And sitting on the council trying to find its way was the establishment - the major online survey researchers.
In the meantime, telephone marketers inspired the "Do Not Call" list, leaving traditional researchers facing a growing consumer resistance to telephone-based research.
Now, marketers and entrepreneurs are starting to think outside the box. On one side, the line between understanding consumers and marketing to them is starting to blur. Marketers are spending significant funds and thinking about consumer relationship databases in new ways. They are treating the consumers in their databases as brand mavens who will tell them what works about the brand, its image and its messaging, and what doesn't. They are also leveraging these consumers as brand advocates, motivating them to shape and spread the brand message. The new toolkit to do this is the specialty social network.
It's quite possible that such old advisory services like the Consumer's Union behind Consumer Reports may evolve into the new testing grounds for marketers looking for independent information about their brands.
On the other side, entrepreneurs are again looking for ways to ask questions to slices of America. The mission is to find those consumers in their natural environments, look for economical ways to engage them, and then as quid pro quo for giving them what they want, have them answer a few questions. Foodfight, a fun Facebook application, is a cutting-edge example. It lets Facebookers toss fake food at their friends. All users start with free points to buy food to toss. When you run out of food and points, all you have to do is answer a few questions to get another allotment of points to buy food.
Clearly, social network services offer easy openings. Marketers now pay to question these consumers, who likely fall outside the world of "professional" respondents. However, games are the greater opportunity, as engagement is the whole point. SimCity lets players manage the development of cities, deciding how to spend resources to grow cities. This is an ethnographer's dream, getting electronic logs of how people make decisions. Imagine what specialized Sim games could teach marketers about consumer behavior.
In general, large panels offer prime banks of people to explore engagement and research behavior. Imagine tapping into eBay's millions of customers with their deep behavioral information expressed in selling, purchasing, PayPal and Skype. Are any segments of these consumers interesting? What are they thinking?
The game of finding and understanding consumers is changing. Look for new consumer research establishments to
evolve from the organizations that engage the consumers.
Mark Green is senior vice president for strategic measurement initiatives at the Nielsen Company. (email@example.com)