Recently I've been spending quite a bit of time following up on conference attendance, reaching out to clients and potential clients to help plan for the upcoming year, and helping design market research studies to assist businesses in making good strategic decisions.  I was speaking with an industry friend the other day about their market research plans for 2015 and we started to discuss the survey research process that gets wrapped around events (concerts, fairs, festivals, shows, farmers markets, etc.).

Events provide a great market research opportunity when executed correctly (I've talked a little bit about events in the past, and what I'm referring to here are EVENTS).  The conversation with my friend was interesting.  She had a challenging dilemma.  As a market researcher, she knows that her research shouldn't be wrapped around any sales process.  But, she isn't the only decision maker on how these sorts of things proceed for her organization.  Often, others in her organization (C-level staff who have much less market research training) have as much to say about what research is supported (or not supported) as she does.  This is not a Fortune 500 company.  They don't have millions in their research budget so they take the research wherever and however they can get it and often times the research that is supported MUST be the least expensive route.  This definitely ISN'T the first time I've heard this problem.

In this case, without much influence in the matter from my researcher friend (C-level decision) a company was procured to do exit surveys at a festival her company was associated with.  It was interesting to hear how this database marketing company was serving a "dual" purpose.  They would conduct a survey (yeah!) but at the tail end of the survey, contact information was gathered for sales or marketing purposes (boo!).  In our slice of the world, this MIGHT be called "sugging" (selling under the guise of research)...not to be mistaken with its close cousin "frugging" (fund raising under the guise of research).

Fortunately, my friend's company that was associated with the event, never received the sales/marketing contact information for the "research participants," the database marketing company notified participants that they were gathering information for a marketing database, and my friend's research department is actively trying to move away from the process.  Unfortunately on a limited budget it's very possible that a "trade" like this is the best you can get.  Is this process "better than nothing?"  My friend's company wasn't associated with sugging, but the practice still poses some challenges to legitimate research and really got me thinking about the topic of sugging and frugging and the thin line between selling and research.

We all know that market research industry association best practices take a strong stance against sugging and frugging.  The Marketing Research Association published this Respondent Bill of Rights, which states clearly "You will not be sold anything, or asked for money, under the guise of research."  But, is this a gray area for companies who are not members of the trade associations or are operating on limited budgets?  We all know that sugging and frugging:

  • Lead to biased research results (potential surveys aren't collected because people avoid being sold to).
  • Decrease future participation in legitimate surveys (that require statistically reliable samples to be accurate).
  • Muddy the water between targeted selling (direct marketing, database marketing, etc.) and legitimate research aimed at answering business questions that require scientific testing.  And, we all know that as researchers, we NEED this line of demarcation to stem the tide of waning response rates and improve the statistical validity of our data.

So what's a researcher to do?  In cases like this one (which I suppose happens frequently) on of two things MUST happen:

  • Companies must either notify the participant that their information WILL be used for sales and marketing purposes and then recognize that the "research" will have a response bias associated with those that will provide their information in that setting (this may be all you have access to and it's the "better than nothing approach" - which is the route my friend took).
  • Or, companies must procure a research organization that will ensure participant anonymity, that no sales call will result from the research activity, and only evaluate the data in aggregate.  Then stick to what you've promised.

Unfortunately, we're probably preaching to the choir for the readers of this blog.  The market research associations have started setting up hotlines for participants who have been "sugged" and market researchers understand how important it is to adhere to these clear lines.  Typically, however, it's not the market research agencies that are doing the sugging.  It's the database marketers who benefit from these data points and aren't associated with market research best practices to begin with.  The place that we, as researchers, can influence the process starts specifically at the corporate researcher level.  Take a stand on this matter and ensure that whatever practice is implemented, participants have been informed and consented to the outcomes.

Originally published on Landmark as "Sugging is not (good) Market Research"