Best PracticesCustomer InsightsMarket Research

Sugging or Mugging: Neither Are Good

bigstockphoto_Crossed_Fingers_At_Handshake_4250638Any 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.”

Marketing Innovations

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.


Kathryn Korostoff

Kathryn Korostoff is founder and lead instructor at Research Rockstar. Over the past 25 years, she has personally directed more than 600 primary market research projects and published over 100 bylined articles in magazines. She is also a professor at Boston University, where she teaches grad students how to analyze and report quantitative data.

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7 thoughts on “Sugging or Mugging: Neither Are Good”

  1. Hi Kathryn,

    Really interesting points you raise about distinguishing between different types of community. I completely agree that spending time up front to agree what the community is looking to achieve is an essential part of the process.

    However, one point I would add is that sometimes the marketing effect is a natural result of a well run community with an insight brief. Many Community members will join in order to help shape, influence & direct a brand because they have a stake in it (usually as a customer). Therefore these people want to share a conversation with the brand and learn more about them. Is this marketing? Perhaps not in the traditional sense but in the new era of transparency, telling your customers more about your brand surely doesn’t fall far form that particular tree.

    I also think that we may be in danger of applying first principles around research in a way that’s not appropriate. I think we now more than ever have an audience who are naturally exposed to so many marketing, advertising, CRM etc messages that the idea of a sample that doesn’t have knowledge of these things is perhaps unrealistic. Far more important is to understand and embrace this context in all that we do.

    I also personally have a question in my head about whether the term ‘research’ is ever right for the communities we (as an industry) run as it brings with it expectations & assumptions that often don’t apply to what we do. But I think that’s a whole other debate!!

    1. Hi Kathryn,

      I’m going to have to side with Paul on this one. Traditionally Mugging was bad. If you did a “survey” and were DIRECTLY marketing RATHER than researching, you were deservingly considered an outcast/rogue/scoundrel.

      There has allows been IMPLICIT marketing during a survey that speaks of brands, especially once it becomes clear what brand or ad or service the respondent is evaluating. The act of informing those unaware prior to the survey has always been indirectly marketing or lets call it ‘aiding & abetting the level of the awareness’ .

      In the 2.0 interactive, bottom up sort of research in communities, things are even less clean cut.

      If a company gathers a community to ‘engage’ with and get direct feedback from (sounds like market research) who do we slice off the marketing/branding aspect from the data collection?

      Can we?

      Should we?

      It’s an interesting dilemma. It is my feeling that since the purpose of marketing research is to aid a company/brand in its marketing efforts (after all we don’t do pure theoretical science here) then we need to comes to terms with the co-mingling of research data collection & information dissemination to the “respondent base”.

      Yes, we need to be aware of the context. We are researching among the converted, this is NOT genpop sampling. But, if the purpose if to improve the service for existing customers I can’t see this as a problem. What we can’t do is say what is true among the converts is also true among the brand heathens (the masses waiting to be converted 🙂

      To tap into new markets or find out why people not longer buy a brand (the apostates in keeping with my historical religious theme), for them, we clearly need to do ‘old style’ research NOT among a brand community.

      I think there is room for both.

  2. I would like to comment on the Quality of Research point. It is all about authenticity and intent imo:
    – if you really want to learn, then dual purpose community may generate new knowledge and engage some new customers into a meaningful relationship ;
    – if you pretend to do research for a purpose of marketing, you will not learn anything meaningful and alienate some potential customers who will see you fora fake.

    I also agree with Paul Child doubt about “research” and “community”.

  3. Hmmm…thought provoking stuff. Thanks, everyone, for joining this discussion. So I am still a bit conflicted. I do agree that part of the issue is semantics. I do tend to be rather precise, and don’t like ambiguous use of words.

    The point “There has allows been IMPLICIT marketing during a survey that speaks of brands, especially once it becomes clear what brand or ad or service the respondent is evaluating”–I agree, this is true. Same with focus groups. I know I have experienced it personally–moderating a focus group, and realizing in the moment that people are being “converted” to the brand just because the brand seems so interested in their opinions.

    I am totally open to the possibility that mixing research and marketing could, indeed, be a good thing. It’s just not quite a comfortable idea for me yet 😉

  4. Personally I think if the INTENT is research, and we are aware of the pools we are fishing in (and keep this in mind during analysis) then the mix is OK. It is not mugging but the research is the purpose, the “marketing” a bi-product (which happens to be good for the client, but less good for the researcher).

    I really don’t see as that we have much of a choice. We have to adapt to the realities of the 21st century and social network/community marketing is all the rage (for good reason too I think).

    Omly offering 20th century research tools will leave MR on the outside looking in while MR functions are increasing brought ‘in-house’ and handled by marketing people who do NOT understand the research context. THEN it will be mugging.

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