Research Communities and Market Research Rules

One of the questions I get asked quite often is whether or not research communities, such as MROCs and Community Panels, are possible inside the rules of market research? The answer is caveated, it depends on which community and which country’s research rules. In the post below I will set out my layman’s (i.e. it could be wrong) view of where communities sit in terms of the rules.

Why communities might NOT be market research?
There are three main areas of concern:

  1. Many communities use client based incentives, e.g. shop vouchers, air miles, telephone minutes etc. This tends to be against societies’ guidelines as they (and some legislators) feel that this is either distorting the market or a form of sales promotion. Brands are keen to use these sorts of incentives because community members tend to prefer them and they increase the bonding of the community members and the community.
  2. If the community is intensive, for example a long term, qualitative/ideation community, the community members tend to become advocates for the brand. The view of societies’ tends to be that this is market distorting and can be seen as a form of marketing. Brands are keen on this element of communities because it helps develop the brands word of mouth.
  3. If community members use their own names, or their own photos, their anonymity can be compromised. The anonymity is further compromised if the brand is involved in running the community themselves.

The choices for agencies
In essence, and under most societies’ guidelines, research agencies have two choices.

  1. Try to fit communities into the existing framework. For example, don’t use client products or services for incentives, use larger communities and panel management to minimise the impact on the respondents (for example using a community panel rather than an MROC), and insist that members do not use their real names and images. This option is easier in a market where other agencies choose the same option.
  2. Don’t call communities market research. Most societies’ allow market research companies to do things that are not market research, provided they do not describe them as market research. They often talk about using market research methods for non-research purposes. In Europe this is a common route, particularly in the UK. Within this framework, researchers are still bound to act honourably, e.g. respecting respondents, using appropriate techniques, etc – but avoiding saying things like ‘research conducted under the ESOMAR rules’.

There is of course a third option, one that is actually quite common. Many agencies seem to operate their communities utilising all three of the problem areas, but still describe it as market research, still flaunt their abidance with societies’ rules, in blissful ignorance of what the rules are.

One other question that comes up fairly often is ‘who owns the ideas generated by the community?’ The answer, if you have written your terms and conditions sensibly, is the brand. Not the members