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Hello? Hey – over here…!

March 15, 2011

I’ve noticed a number of themes converging on each other recently – as a result of  which I’m now very interested in measures and indications of someone’s ‘online degree of wanting-to-be-connected-with-ness’.

Here are some of the themes responsible:

  • Market Research clients are more frequently expressing a desire to target some research on people who have recently experienced their products, services, events and communications. But, for a variety of methodological and logistical reasons, they can’t or don’t necessarily want to approach those people through the same channels that delivered the service, experience or message.
  • Web mining (or ‘social media monitoring’ if you like) is maturing both technologically and methodologically as a practice – and gives its users a window on people who may self-identify as having recently ‘touched’ a particular brand.
  • In customer service this self-identification can be taken one step further. Companies like Sentiment Metrics can offer clients the means to engage, directly, with individuals who have an unaddressed complaint or query. Consumers are catching on, not least on Twitter, and some are deliberately using hash-tags and likely keywords as the equivalent of coughing loudly when mentioning a brand whose attention they seek.  They do so in the active hope of getting second-tier, fast-track, attention.
  • Groups within social networks, and self-maintained online communities, also offer the temptation to communicate directly. They may not immediately identify individuals who fit criteria such as ‘bought product x in the last week’ or ‘saw TV advert Y last night’ but communities of interest – PC Case-modders, as a random example? – greatly increase the chances that you can find the right people. Companies such as Linqia (possibly *the* pioneer in this regard) recognised the value not just of identifying relevant communities and opening a channel to them for brands, but also brokering a positive and constructive start to the ensuing relationship.  I notice that Linqia’s most prominent model, at present, is what might be called “collectively permissive advertising”, but other kinds of interaction remain possible.

Combine these themes and trends and you have a potentially powerful alignment of desire to connect and desire to be connected to… in the specific context of a particular product, service, experience or broader ‘category’.

As a Market Researcher I am very interested in what this means for our ability to ‘recruit’ and ‘sample’ people with particular experiences who might otherwise be difficult, or at least resource-intensive, to find.  We might also concern ourselves, to just the right professional degree, with the representativeness and ‘conditioning’ of such a sample and, more to the point, when this is and isn’t relevant to what our client needs.

But another aspect of the Market Research perspective, maybe even one of the cornerstones of Market Research’s identity, is a sensitivity to confidentiality and a respect for privacy. On traditional models one of the defining characteristics of a ‘proper’ code of conduct-upholding, Market Research agency is that it recruits and interviews people on the understanding that their identities, and certain other identifying information, will not be revealed to the client, or to third parties, or to other respondents. This starts with double opting-in, whereby it is made unambiguous to all parties that the participant *is* signed up, *is* participating in valid research, and *is* aware of the terms on which they do so. Another service we then provide is to filter through, to more direct interaction with our clients, those research participants who have equally unambiguously expressed an interest in being so.

So when we see opportunities to engage with people who self-identify, via social media, as members of a target group we also see a need to ensure that we engage in ways which are consistent with our practice as Market Researchers. Professional bodies such as ESOMAR, CASRO and the MRS have been working hard to adapt our principles to these new scenarios.

Of course, this could seem to mean that we are putting ourselves at a disadvantage, in comparison to the brands themselves, or to marketing agencies. But this has always been true of our other interactions with research participants. The upside is that we are perceived as trusted third party – able to validate the participants and our clients alike, to each other, as parties to an orderly and equitable exchange. So maybe that’s the case here – that what we can do, in particular, is to preserve and underwrite the terms on which the participant is contacted and possibly even the basis on which they identified their desire (or the degree of such desire) to be contacted, or quoted, in the first place.

One thing that could help with this, in terms of the functions and profiles that social networking platforms and online community hosts make available, would be some more explicit indication of that person’s (or that post’s) status as regards being contacted/recruited. There are spectres aplenty here for the pessimistic researcher.  We can imagine getting bogged down in “STANDARDS!” or we suspect that, without people thinking it through, there will be a mass opting out – a forest of ‘No hawkers, circulars or researchers’ notices springing up across the social web. These could be notices that we wouldn’t have to respect if we didn’t provoke them in the first place.

But there are solutions – Twitter users have shown us how easy it is for standards such as “#” to arise, be understood and carry weight. Similarly if we can’t persuade social media users of the direct and indirect value to them of getting involved in a wide range of emerging Market Research modes – perhaps we shouldn’t be in the business.

I’m not talking about a couple of simple radio buttons her either, though, nor about targeted or ‘social’ online advertising. I’m talking about something a bit richer in texture, and more immediately interpreted by people rather than machines. We can see the beginnings of it in LinkedIn ( “Interested in…” ) or Facebook (distributed “Activities and Interests” permissions or App/API permissions) but what price in the future a profile that says, “Interested in meeting women, motorsport fans and automotive brands” ?

For the present – “I had a really nice glass of Waitrose own-brand Cognac last night”.

I said (ahem) “I HAD A REALLY NICE GLASS OF WAITROSE OWN-BRAND COGNAC LAST NIGHT”.

Helloooo? Over here…!

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