Facing up to Data Misuse: Does Facebook’s scandal affect the market research space?

By Christina Costa-Connolly

A hullabaloo connected to data misuse is once again at the forefront with Facebook’s international scandal surrounding voter data, the 2016 election in the United States and Brexit. Without the exploitation of personal data by the social media giant and its subsequent misuse for targeted ads, we might be looking at a very different political landscape in 2018.

While the scandal does not actually directly involve the market research industry, it does center around the use of personal data. In an industry built on discovering the truth about people’s thoughts, feelings and preferences, the misuse of the information that can uncover these truths is unsettling for market researchers. Just as it is likely unsettling for our potential research participants.

This latest Facebook fiasco is just one more hiccup in a long string of incidents affecting the use of personal data. Facebook was blamed for helping to fuel the “fake news” phenomenon that influenced the latest U.S. Presidential election. If you looked at the social profile of a generally conservative American versus a liberal American during those months leading up to the election, it’s likely you would have seen very different stories – often about the same subject. Add questionable algorithms like this to tangible breaches of consumer data, like the massive Experian and Equifax data breaches, and you have a population that is soundly distrustful of sharing any personal information.

How did market research get caught up in public perception of these data crises? Political polling for example, a high profile type of market research, had its credibility severely affected during the Trump vs. Clinton election in the USA and Brexit in the UK, when it largely failed to predict the outcome of both votes. Business decision-makers are understandably concerned about the risk of making strategic errors based on market insight that is inaccurate. It’s likely that this grievous error by researchers will not be forgotten any time soon, although the more recent polls predictions have been more accurate.

But rather than a crisis for market research, perhaps we can view this “stirring up” as an opportunity.

Getting to the truth might be harder but it’s no less important. Building trust with participants, through advanced participant engagement and satisfaction methods that follow throughout the entire process, should certainly be part of the conversation. We also should think about putting heightened reliance on the application of science and digging harder to get to the insights.

Certainly, research design becomes even more vital in this environment, along with broadening methodology and thoughtful delivery of analysis and insights. Getting to the heart of the matter has always been the goal of the insights community, and our new set of societal circumstances makes this goal of paramount importance in proving and preserving our reputation and value as an industry.

This is part of the reason why agencies are complementing traditional CATI and focus groups with online panels, and increasing social media data and mobile specific surveying. ‘Big data’ type analysis is being used to crunch quantitative data, and qualitative analysis is getting richer and more nuanced. Data presentation is becoming more dynamic and diverse – from the traditional reporting through to video stories and online dashboards. In our new set of societal circumstances where “fake news” and “data breach” have become household phrases, easily accessible insights that weigh all types of data carefully have greater value than ever before. On the flip side, these insights are being scrutinized even further for accuracy.

This presents a challenge for the market research and insights sector beyond the demand to dig deeper with richer analysis and present with more pizzazz – we are also being asked to deliver at a faster rate, and at a better price than ever before. But we shouldn’t give up hope. This conflicting pressure is driving the emergence of tools and technology that help agencies improve the efficiency of their data analysis process and equip them to more easily build powerful reporting tools for clients.

In short, the demand for consumer insight in a world that is skeptical and hesitant when it comes to data usage hasn’t diminished, rather the challenge of providing it continues to intensify. As researchers, we need to look at ways to equip ourselves to meet those challenges so we can continue to play a key role on getting to the truth and exploration of data in a way that builds trust and delivers accurate outcomes.

By Christina Costa-Connolly, Regional Director, Infotools