Can you feel the heat?

Whilst this image may not represent the day-to-day reality of your working life in the research sector, I want to use it to symbolise the danger our sector is facing today in order to provoke an action from you: Are you going to join me in helping put out the fire, or are you going to run or stay transfixed like a deer caught it the headlights?

This article first appeared in the September-October 2017 edition of the Australian Market and Social Research Society’s publication Research News, the theme of which was DANGEROUS!

Whilst you might not yet feel the heat, or indeed see the flames, many people in the industry I have spoken to across the globe can at least see the smoke and are aware that the fire has indeed started and is growing ever stronger. Australians are well aware that it is easier to put out a small fire than a big one, which is why we are advocating action sooner rather than later.


“It is the lack of trust people have in market research which threatens to destroy our ability to give effective help to clients by successfully informing their decision-making.”

While I will highlight the dangers we are facing, my goal is that by the end of the article, most readers will have a “glass half full” attitude towards the issue of trust in market research and that at least 10 of you will contact me in order to join the GRBN initiative to do something about it!

To get you in the right frame of mind to become one of those ten people, I would like you to perform a small visualisation exercise:
Imagine a world in which no-one trusts market researchers or market research companies. How would that impact your day-to-day work? Your business? Your career? Spend a couple of minutes with your eyes closed trying to visualize yourself working in that world.
Fantastic! Fortunately, we are not quite there yet, but we might be closer than you think, so hopefully you feel energised to prevent that world from coming into existence.


Before looking at the level of trust in market research, let’s step back and look at the wider picture of how people trust institutes and other types of organisations in general.
When GRBN looked into this early last year* we found rather a bleak picture with, on average across 17 different types of organisations, only 15% of people having a high level of trust and 24% a low level of trust.

One of the most shocking findings from the research was the incredibly low level of trust in government across the globe in the pre-Brexit and pre-Trump world. The average for the nine countries, in which we conducted the research, was 18% of people having a high level of trust and 29% a low level of trust in government.

Source: GRBN Trust Survey 2016

Perhaps this low level of trust does not explain the double-surprise of the Brexit vote or the Trump victory, but it is clear from the low level of trust that many people were not satisfied with the status quo and were open to alternative messages. I see this lack of trust in government as one of the key risks to democracy as we know it. If the people have no trust in those they have voted to lead their countries, who can they trust? This is extremely serious and the onus is on politicians to make re-establishing trust in politicians and the institutes they represent as one of their key objectives.


If distrust in government was bad enough, there is also a strong distrust of traditional media, as well as of social media companies. The measurement was taken before fake-news became real news, so I can only imagine that trust in media is even lower now than a year ago. Again, the onus is very much on the media companies to proactively work to regain people’s trust.


Perhaps it is not surprising in light of the general level of distrust people have, but when we undertook the research, perhaps naively, I expected market research to perform much better than it did… after all our sample consisted of people who participated in research on a regular basis through an online panel.

If we focus on Australia, our research showed that 10% of Australians have a high level of trust, and 21% a low level of trust, in market research organisations, ranking joint 8th out of the 17 different types of organisations surveyed, alongside credit card and telecoms companies, and only fractionally more trusted than Australian-based media companies.
Looking more globally, whilst market research has a relatively high level of trust in Brazil and Germany, the net level of trust in market research organisations is significantly negative in the US, the UK, Canada and Japan, as well as in Australia.


Source: GRBN Trust Survey 2016

I, for one, cannot tolerate this level of distrust in market research. In this climate, if we do nothing, it is highly likely that the level of trust will further decline, with serious implications for our ability to engage people in research, with serious implications for our ability to deliver accurate data and insights. A Dangerous! situation indeed.


In the same research, we explored three drivers of trust, which we (market researchers, market research business eaders, market research buyers AND market research industry body leaders) need to address.

1. Trust with Personal Data Protection

As many as 8-in-10 people told us that they are concerned about misuse of their personal data, with as many as 4-in-10 very concerned.

In Australia, only 9% of respondents in our survey said that they have a high level of trust in market research companies to protect and appropriately use their personal data, and as many as 31% said they have a low level of trust.

The answers to other questions on this topic were both enlightening and frightening.
In Australia, less than 1-in-4 people believe the collection and use of their personal data by market research companies to be appropriate – and these are people who are already sharing that data with us! And, almost half doubt that their data is securely protected by market research companies.

We are, as an industry, better than these numbers suggest. But, we have done a poor job at communicating this. And, the people agree, with less than 1-in-5 feeling well informed about how their personal data is collected, stored and used by market research companies. Being trusted to look after people’s data is fundamental to a relationship built on trust in today’s digitalized world.

2. Making a difference

It is important to step back and understand why people take part in research. When we looked at our research into panelists’ online survey user experience**, we found that, whilst the financial incentive is indeed important, other factors motivate people to participate.

Source: GRBN Online Survey User Experience Survey 2016

If we understand and care about what motivates an individual to participate, then we have the ability to create an experience which is beneficial to the participant, as well as to ourselves. This mutual benefit, or shared value, is fundamental to any relationship built on trust.

Our research shows that most people understand that market research benefits business, but less than half believe that it benefits ordinary people, either as consumers or citizens. We need to make much more effort to communicate the value that our industry contributes to society, not only on a project-by-project basis, but also more broadly to the general public. Here we should praise the German research sector, which runs an annual “market research day”, getting out onto the street to promote the value of what we do, and running advertising campaigns extolling the role market research plays in bringing new products to the market.


You can read more about the German success story here.

3. Giving people a great experience

Whilst most panelists were generally satisfied with their experience of being part of a panel, as many as 7-in-10 said that they have had a bad survey experience recently. This totally unacceptable. What would you as a researcher recommend to your client if their customer satisfaction research was telling the same story? You certainly wouldn’t advise them to continue “business-as-usual”, which is in practice what we are doing to ourselves. The cobbler’s children indeed have no shoes!

Improving the survey user experience is not rocket science and each of us has the ability to do so. To start with, here are the top tips from our research-on-research:

  1. Get the basics right
    1. e.g. short screeners, honesty about the length and a fair incentive
  2. Design for a great user experience
    1. e.g. make it mobile-friendly, make it clear and concise, make it fun
  3. Close the feedback loop
    1. e.g. tell people who the survey is for and what will be done with the results (and what is the benefit to people like themselves)

Yes, this is not rocket science, but there is huge inertia to change. Let’s take mobile-friendliness. We all know many people, especially those elusive young adults, take surveys on their smartphone when they participate. So why is it that even today many surveys are not mobile-friendly, let alone mobile-optimised?

I see at least two reasons for this. First, the relatively cheap cost of fieldwork online. If it is cheaper to recruit a new person to participate than to retain or re-engage them, then there is no financial incentive to do this. In a world where companies talk about millions of panelists, there is the illusion that it doesn’t matter, that someone will always be found to answer the survey and fill the quota.

Second, the impersonality of online surveys. The researcher is currently so far removed from the person responding to the survey, that it is easy to forget that it matters, what the eye doesn’t see (…). I cut my teeth with face-to-face surveys, going out door-to-door with interviewers to do pilot interviews. I was also lucky enough to work for a research company with our own call centre. In both cases, I got direct and very blunt feedback from both interviewers and participants on the experience my surveys were giving. Now, researchers can just press Send, have a coffee and wait for the data. Nice and easy. No need to care about the experience being inflicted on participants.


If we cannot build a trusting relationship with the general public then fewer and fewer people will participate. Perhaps, this decline can be partly offset by increasing incentives, but the effect on sample quality will become increasingly obvious to clients and this race to the bottom will show that the emperor indeed has no clothes.

Maybe you don’t care about data quality; perhaps you will care about the negative impact you are having on your client’s brand / corporate reputation? Our research tells us that many people blame the brands in the survey when they have a bad survey experience. People are savvy. They know that most surveys are conducted on behalf of a company or a brand. While many are participating in research to try and influence things, that is to help companies and brands, they feel betrayed that the reward for their willingness to help is a bad experience. How would you feel if you tried to help someone and in return they treated you badly? Not great!


You bet we can! We only have to look at the example of Germany, take inspiration and act.
All is not lost, but we need to take heed of George Orwell’s Final Warning:

“Don’t Let It Happen. It Depends on You!” 


Simply, you need to decide today to become more participant-centric in your thinking and actions, and to encourage others to do the same. Whilst it is great if you do take action alone, it is even greater if you join forces with us to take coordinated, collective action to increase the level of trust people have in market research.

GRBN, in co-operation with the regional federations and the leading national associations, including AMSRS, have created a Building Public Trust Program, aimed at increased in the level of trust in our industry across the globe by positively impacting the three drivers of trust I discussed earlier.

We are currently undertaking a Participant Engagement Initiative aimed at improving the user experience people get when participating in research, since there is absolutely no point in encouraging more people to participate in research if we are going to give them a terrible experience when we do. We would love your involvement in this initiative, as well as in the broader Building Public Trust Program.


So, you’ve got this far. Are you convinced?

• Are you convinced that we are living and working in dangerous times in the market research sector?
• Are you convinced that we can change things?
• Are you convinced that it depends on you?

If at least 10 of you reading this article say “yes” to all three questions and get in touch, I will have achieved my goal. If I fail, I promise that I will try again. I have no interest in saying “I told you so” once the fire of distrust in our sector is totally out of control.

Andrew_CannonAndrew Cannon





The Australian Market and Social Research Society is linked globally to 45 associations through its partnership with the Global Research Business Network (GRBN) and the Asia Pacific Research Committee (APRC). Click here to read about the AMSRS global network. This article is originally sourced from GRBN website.

About AMSRS 423 Articles
The Australian Market & Social Research Society Limited (AMSRS) is a not-for-profit professional membership body of over 2,000 market and social research professionals who are dedicated to increasing the standard and understanding of market and social research in Australia. The Society assists members to develop their careers by heightening professional standards and ethics in the fields of market and social research.

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