George Pappachen and Richard Coombe

First published in Research World October 2010

Passive observation research methods are gaining traction but how do we obtain respondents’ permission for digital mining?

There’s a definite shift underway in consumer media behavior and its effect on the marketplace is undeniable. In October 2009, IAB UK reported that online advertising expenditure exceeded television spending for the first time ever. Far from being a single market issue, this is a matter of global implication.

The effects of the digital transformation are pervasive and researchers, whose measurement models rely on a very precise understanding of consumers, are compelled to adjust. Concurrently, data management and consumer privacy – especially in relation to online practices – have become hugely strategic issues for industries that are reliant on consumer data for insight, analytics, and predictive references.

A recent advertising industry headline read, “Consumers say they want healthy food but aren’t buying it.” The obvious takeaway being that contrary to their stated preference (for healthy foods), consumers were influenced more by taste, cost and menu choices – an argument for not always accepting ‘claimed’ preferences at face value. For this and other reasons, systems that leverage data on actual or observed behavior are gaining a higher profile with marketers. However, consumers may yet have to be convinced of the merits of applications that deliver the goods.

A recent TRUSTe study reported that 51% of respondents were uncomfortable with online businesses using their browsing history to provide better services. However, the exact same percentage reportedly wanted more relevant information for decision-making versus mass marketing. It will probably take some time for this picture to come into full focus.

In the interim, regulators across the globe are asking businesses intent on interacting with consumers to not only disavow certain data practices but to show leadership, to the point of introducing privacy enhancing technologies (PETs).

Last year, a top advertiser entered into settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (US regulatory body) after the advertiser and it’s research partner were examined for possible privacy infractions. The issue under review was whether there was appropriate disclosure of the nature and full extent of web activities captured from a ‘community’ or panel of users.

Whilst various industries may desire themselves to be seen by the public as distinct business segments, market research in particular needs this recognition. Moreover, research must ensure that it is not subsumed by a broad brush approach to regulation of online businesses. As different from strategy of earlier periods, it is likely insufficient to seek exemption from compliance, as the sole or even leading thrust of our approach with policy makers. However, the argument for exemption could have considerable traction if it is joined with affirmative steps to collectively position industry practices as distinct and visibly distinguishable from other sectors, even in the context of interactive platforms.

A plan for interactive
Establishing a privacy platform that reflects the capabilities (for passive measurement, for example) of the times and accurately informs of business tactics is more than just managing risk – it is a sign of respect for consumers and the continued relevance and importance of our offer to the marketplace. After all, our objectives are fully served by not only guiding and advising clients and stakeholders about market trends but by engaging consumers using novel platforms and tools to capture the most reliable representation or data.

If we choose to be relevant in this way and progress our capabilities, consumers have a right to harbour certain expectations and we are obligated to inform and help establish the rules of engagement. At the recent ESOMAR Congress Odyssey 2010, we advanced the proposition that the industry should, at once, deploy guiding principles or a digital charter, among other things, to frame our particular intentions and conduct in this area. ESOMAR’s latest Guideline on Online Research update can be uniquely effective towards achieving this goal.

As mentioned in our Congress Odyssey 2010 paper, a responsible approach would be anchored on certain long-standing and fundamental consumer-centric concepts. These are the threads that connect market research from its roots through to the present database age and help maintain its distinctive character.

Our proposal is really to do no more than to implement digital contextualisation of relationship-based tenets that have traditionally marked best practices. As part of platform, we raise three guiding principles which can then lead to concrete tactical steps:

  1. Provide fair notice to consumers of any data collection activity.
  2. Ensure that collection and transfer platforms are as secure as possible with special consideration for the sensitive nature of the collected information.
  3. Provide feasible controls that are presented in transparent ways so that consumers can develop faith in our currency and manage their interactions.

Gateway to information

Whilst these measures and others are important, there is a gateway element which enables the opportunity to present consumers with messages that distinguish our purposes. Developing and promoting the use of a universal icon (a touch-point) is key for this model. Over time, consumers must recognise this touch-point as being a gateway to transparency – to more information about specific activities that occur in the marketplace.

The recycle logo is an example of an icon which has successfully connected with the intended message in consumer minds. Whether we carve out a segmented existence for research within a broader ‘data collection transparency’ framework or we do heavy lifting and develop visual aids of our own, this territory has to be traversed given the design of digital platforms. Of course, for the icon to have meaning, there must be certain agreed to practices which all icon-users must pledge to. If we were the first or only industry to seek to introduce this kind of consumer signage into interactive space, there would be significant hurdles to practical implementation. Fortunately, other industries are also developing plans – and some are farther along than that – to roll out consumer visual aids around digital data collection. This may allow us to leverage existing patterns in some areas and carve our own path in others.

This call for transparency about digital data collection is nowhere near a finished product but we propose that the raw materials are available in order for work to proceed.

Since giving insight and consultancy to clients during the creative or product development process is our expertise, here is an opportunity to test on ourselves – drink our own potion if you will. How do we enter consumers’ mental space in the way we want to? What are key messages that should stand out above others in the various phases of consumer interaction? What would be clear detractors from our messaging? Is it possible to present different business models in easily consumable way? Since we are both service provider and client in this effort, shall we give permission to ask ourselves, what would success look like?

The stage is set and the time to act is now. The side-lines is no place for the industry in the face of this challenge, or opportunity, and especially when we are this heavily invested in the outcome.

George Pappachen is chief privacy officer at Kantar/WPP and Richard Coombe is director of knowledge management at Kantar Operations.