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Is Privacy the Next Major Battleground of Market Research?

Hardly a month goes by without it being reported that another company has had its online data security breached. Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that many people have concerns when it comes to the security of their personal data online. That said, in this digital age, it is generally regarded as a given that companies will have adequate data security in place to protect personal details.

Whilst the issue of data security is often confused with data privacy, this is a debate for another time, my focus her is on the issue of data privacy…

When it comes to the data privacy, the waters are perhaps a little more murky… living in a world where many of us like to share our likes, dislikes, and everyday movements with the world of social media without a second thought. Why would this current Social Media generation give two hoots how their non-identifiable details and preferences are accessed and used?

Should the question therefore be…to what extent should the market research industry continue to abide by its strict (self-imposed) data privacy rules?

Market research, as an industry, has always maintained an ethical standpoint that differentiates itself from other industries vying for consumer information; taking the view that nothing is ever a given and that there is a fundamental requirement to be utterly transparent at all times, and always ensure any permissions for data (identifiable and non-identifiable) is explicitly granted. This standpoint is now being placed under ever increasing pressure.

The range of online DIY market research tools available is expanding all the time and with this comes the emergence of more companies outside of the traditional market research industry who are more than happy to bypass the privacy codes of practice and provide clients with all the information they require regardless of respondent preferences. Other companies are moving towards conducting more research in-house gaining the ability to manipulate personal data however they wish.

In essence, the stronger the privacy regulations the market research industry imposes upon itself, the greater credibility it maintains. But will these strict codes of conduct create trust, or further the divide between researchers and clients? It is a balancing act the industry must get right!

The way I see it is, it all boils down to trust. If you lose respondent trust in relation to data privacy you ultimately lose the ability to gain true insight. If anonymity is lost, respondents will become more wary of the opinions they express or even opt-out of participation in market research entirely. It is then unlikely clients will ever be able to fully rely on insight gathered, rendering any savings (or previous insight) worthless.

The second driver of this debate is the increased presence of social media and passive data collection methods. Did you know that if you go online right now and message nearly any brand (or even mention them by name) on social media — that you may inadvertently become part of their consumer research programme? That innocuous message can be ‘scraped’ — or picked up — by monitoring tools that crawl the web looking for brand mentions.

What happens then? You become part of a larger data set. Any information you have publically provided (age, location, profession etc.) can be combined into a larger average. Sentiment analysis tools can even seek out particular terms or phrases within your message and cross tabulate with demographics and predictive models for further analysis.

Currently, there is still a degree of anonymity in these passive data collection techniques. But take, for example, the case of an individual. What if there is no larger data set to be added to — what if you are the first? Granted, it is an unlikely scenario, but not impossible. Neither is it impossible for technology to develop to the point where it can pinpoint individuals, monitor your online interactions and associate it with an individual profile, all without your knowledge.

Passive data collection has even opened up opportunities outside of the digital world too. In 2013, UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s installed state-of-the-art tracking systems that allowed the grocer to monitor shoppers as they made their way around the store. In this example, permission was gained from each participant prior to the study. But what if this was not the case, what is stopping passive data collection such as this being used in the future without permission? Or simply under the guise of assumed permission? What happens then? Who owns the rights to this data and information?

You may feel there is no harm in tracking your shopping and behavioural habits, after all it is anonymous and captured digitally at no expense to yourself…or is it? How would you feel if you had been tracked without permission by a private investigator who, whilst keeping your identity anonymous, used the information gained to further his/her business? I’m guessing it would feel like an invasion of privacy and that you would be non-too pleased! Whilst many may be more than happy to provide their passive data, surely it is essential to ensure that no invasion of privacy has occurred by always explicitly ensuring permission for data capture is gained at the outset?

When relating this back to market research I believe that it is our duty of care for participants and genuine interest in them as individuals that drives us to doggedly continue to gather permission

The nature of permission is changing… there are those that argue using a service assumed permission is granted for consumer data collection. However, there are others who will go out of their way to ensure participants are not only aware their data is being collected, but that they understand what this means. In truth, the definition of permission is becoming blurred and battle lines are being drawn.

It is likely that in the near future, two types of research agency will emerge: the permission based researchers and the passive researchers. While passive researchers will be able to offer great scale at speed, it is the permission based researchers that will be able to achieve true insight and get the best results.

I believe true insight is achieved when respondent privacy is fully respected and will always win out in the end. Which do you believe will be most effective — passive or permission based research? Have you had any experiences with either? Let us know in the comments below and join the conversation.

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