Fundamental Principles Every Market Researcher Should Follow

This complimentary excerpt from the new Principles Express course, Ethical and Legal Issues in Market Research, authored by Adam Phillips, can help you navigate the labyrinth of privacy laws by introducing you to a set of ethical principles that will position you to meet the vast majority of legal requirements.

The quality of research depends on the ability to contact representative samples of populations, persuade them to provide us with their behavioral data, and give honest answers to our questions. For that reason, researchers are careful to explain this to participants to reassure them that it will be kept secure, explaining that they will not be identified to the end-users of the research without their consent. 

The bad publicity associated with lack of transparency in collecting and handling personal data by research and social media companies, as well as the recent problems with political polling predictions, highlight the challenge of maintaining a good reputation. The task of maintaining the reputation of research becomes more difficult by the day with the growth of social media and the development of 24/7 rolling media coverage. Researchers need to be aware at all times that their behavior can influence public confidence in our work.

Just as no company exists in a vacuum, market research is a part of a larger society with norms, shared cultural characteristics, standards, best practices, and a mix of players with differing roles and missions. This ecosystem has multiple components and the long-term success of the research profession depends on our recognizing the behavioral constraints that constitute an informal code of conduct across all of the components. In this course, you will learn the fundamental ethical and legal principles that govern our relationships with the people whose data we collect and/or use in research, and why it is important that those principles govern our actions at all times.

Years ago, it was sufficient to tell participants that their information would be used to develop better products and services and to reassure them that the results would be presented in such a way that they could not be identified. This is no longer enough. The growth of the Internet and public discussion about targeting online content at individuals has made people much more concerned about how their personal data will be used. Participants expect to understand whether the answers they give will be used to help them get better value from the products and services they use, or whether they will be used to help the manufacturer or service provider extract more profit. 

Why Understanding Ethics is Essential for Market Researchers

Researchers will be trusted by individual members of the public and our clients if we are to be able to:

Trust in hands
  • Recruit representative samples
  • Obtain honest answers
  • Collect good quality data 
  • Deliver evidence and insights that will be believed by our clients, the media and the public
  • Maintain the legal and regulatory exemptions that apply to market research.

The general principles for building trust are:

  • Be honest 
  • Do what you say you are going to do 
  • Avoid causing harm
  • Treat people fairly 

These are ethical principles – not rules – because the behaviors required to satisfy the requirements depend on each particular case. 

Researchers have long been concerned with making a clear distinction between research and direct marketing or sales-oriented activities. These concerns have expanded in recent years with the proliferation of all kinds of data and the emergence of automated decision-making systems that go beyond and into a host of other domains. These include healthcare, financial risk assessment, criminal justice, and employment – to name a few. Some of these uses may be discriminatory, favoring some individuals over others. These and other potential uses of personal data challenge researchers to more carefully define what is and is not research.

The Fundamental Principles That All Researchers Should Follow

As an industry and profession, three fundamental principles underlie the codes of practice that all market researchers should apply to their work, whether providing, interpreting, or using research:

  1. When collecting personal data, researchers must be transparent about the information they plan to collect, the purpose for which it will be collected, with whom it might be shared, and in what form.
  2. Researchers must ensure that personal data used is thoroughly protected from unauthorized access and not disclosed without the consent of the individual.
  3. Researchers must always behave ethically and do nothing that might harm a participant or damage the reputation of the market, opinion, and social research.

Some Examples of Real Ethical Issues Researchers Have Faced 

When it comes to honesty, Fundamental Principle 1, conducting qualitative research means it is not uncommon for clients to observe a focus group using a video link or one-way mirror. The participants run the risk of being identified by the client, especially in business-to-business research. It is therefore important that the researcher be open and honest about the research environment and obtain informed consent from the participant as well as an agreement from any observers to protect the identity of participants.

One example of ethical principles working better than rules would be an online game that harvests data about users’ friends by accessing their address book. The declared purpose of collecting this personal data is to help participants share their results with their friends, whereas the real purpose of the game is a list-building exercise to provide a data warehouse with behavioral and attitudinal data. In some countries, this would be illegal, even if the long privacy statement actually explains what is going to happen to the data. 

What about a game branded by a well-known fast food company in which toppings and fillings are chosen for pizzas and hamburgers with the stated purpose of researching the best combinations? The company uses word of mouth and viral marketing to build a good sample and collect personal data from more than 30,000 individuals playing the game. Would that qualify as research, or does it seem more likely that it is covert advertising designed to promote the brand and create brand advocates? This would violate Fundamental Principle 2 unless the game is not introduced as research. Additionally, if personal data is collected, informed opt-in consent must be obtained before the participant can start playing. 

Another example of ethics in action would be Fundamental Principle 3, which is managing the conflicts of interest that could damage the reputation of market research. In this scenario, you have been working on a new product for one client when another comes along with a very similar idea. You need to decide whether you can legitimately work on the project with the information you have. What can you tell your current client and potential future client if you have signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) with the first client? The important thing is not to lie and not to create a situation where suspicion about your honesty could arise. You may have to refuse the work but, in most cases, transparency with both clients is the wisest course of action. 

Interested in learning more? You can take a Principles Express course at your own pace, entirely online, and in 8 to 14 hours.  For only $359, Ethical and Legal Issues in Market Research will teach you how to make well-informed choices about designing a research project to provide fresh and actionable insights, while protecting the data you collect to ensure the privacy of participants. You’ll receive a certificate from the University of Georgia for completing the course. Click here or call +1-706-542-3537!

We are grateful for the course to be sponsored by Adelphi, a dynamic team that shares expertise across a wide range of disease areas including oncology, haematology and rare diseases, applying the latest market research techniques and a suite of flexible approaches. Such sponsorships have funded the development of our new line of Principles Express courses, a portfolio of $359 online courses that each let you master a research skill at your own pace.

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