Any market research professional will tell you that selling under the guise of research is a big no-no. If you approach people to participate in research, it’s research. The information gathered cannot be used for lead generation, sales prospecting or any other direct sales effort. So-called “sugging” is old news. There are codes of ethics and FTC laws about it.
While at the Marketing Research Association’s First Outlook conference this past week, I listened to some interesting stories from people using their online communities as both research and marketing vehicles. This dual-purpose approach leaves me feeling, quite frankly, conflicted. And a little ignorant; apparently this is a widespread practice. Until now, I had thought most communities were primarily focused on listening to customers to uncover their needs, behaviors, and attitudes. Instead, these dual-purpose communities appear to be marketing under the guise of research. So let’s call it “mugging.”
Market Research Ethics
As a market research professional concerned about research ethics, and how ethical practices impact the general population’s willingness to participate in research, the potential damage from mugging makes me uneasy. Companies running online communities need to clearly disclose the dual purpose (if that is, indeed, their intent). Recruiting people for the purpose of research, then using the community to generate buzz, sell product, or otherwise influence buying behavior, is unethical. If the community is recruited with the dual-intent stated clearly, then that’s fine. It’s the bait-and-switch that is objectionable.
Market Research Quality
As a market research professional concerned about research quality, I find the idea of dual-purpose communities very disturbing. I hear lots of clients with online communities talk about them as a great source of rich, qualitative insights. But if those insights are being gathered from people who are being screened up-front to be pre-disposed to creating positive word-of-mouth for the brand, that is a very narrow, questionable form of research. The biggest risk? Research results from such a skewed population being presented as “rich qualitative insights,” when they are “rich qualitative insights from those customers who already know us, love us, and want to help us succeed.”
As a marketing enthusiast (someone who enjoys testing new marketing approaches), I think it’s cool. Inviting my most loyal brand advocates to participate in ongoing online discussions, getting to “leak” new product ideas to them to create advance buzz, “rewarding” them with product samples…what a great way to foster more direct client contact. It’s like creating a stealth sales force. And at a very low cost.
No Mugging Please
If dual-purpose communities are clearly disclosed as such during the recruitment process, fine. But even so, any “research” reported from these very skewed populations must be used very carefully, and not confused with more objective insights. It may simply be wiser to choose a single goal per community: one focused on research, another on marketing, and stop trying to mix the two.