In market research, a respondent’s anonymity is sacrosanct – to be protected with the utmost diligence. There are guidelines, rules and laws, all of which have been created to ensure that at no time will the personal details of a panel member, survey respondent or online community member ever be divulged. Sure, they are happy to tell us almost everything else about themselves if the question dictates this, but as we say in the business ‘at no time will your responses be personally attributed to yourself’.
Online research has meant that the power of anonymity has grown, as no longer is there any physical contact with the collector of information. Surveys, communities and focus groups can all be undertaken online in the comfort of one’s anonymous surroundings.
The benefits of this increased level of anonymity are many. Respondents are happier to divulge information that previously they would have been unwilling to share with an interviewer. Things like medical conditions, financial standing to name just a couple of examples. Working with financial clients in the past where respondents were happy to talk about having to remortgage their house and living from pay check to pay check really proved to be an eye opener to the benefits of discussing these topics in an online environment compared to an open focus group session.
We expect people to be more open and honest in their opinions, which for market research is imperative in ensuring that the correct results and insights are delivered to a client. Honest opinions are both positive and negative of course. When the information tells us something that someone might not want to hear is where the problems lie.
Ben Elton’s latest TV offering ‘Live from Planet Earth’ received some poor reviews but it was the level of vitriol served up by ‘tweeters’ which got Ben and a number of media commentators quite wound up. Karl Quinn at theage.com.au was particularly incensed by the comments. It was the anonymous negative opinions being aired throughout the show which he called bullying. He quotes Matt Zoller Seitz in his article. “The protective force field of anonymity – or pseudonymity – brings out the worst in some people. They say things they would never say in the presence of flesh-and-blood human beings.” That may be true but as we’ve said, at least these opinions are honest and do not ‘sugar coat’ the truth.
It is not the anonymity of the tweeters which is the problem but the actual honesty of their opinions, (which is really what we want in the first place) that is upsetting Karl Quinn.
Twitter is now seen as an instantaneous, real-time yard stick to how a program is performing. If Ben Elton’s ‘Live from Planet Earth’ had been applauded and people loved it, would journalists have found the need to talk about how many tweeted their love for Ben Elton’s ‘best work ever’? Unlikely. Their honest anonymous opinions would have been seen as an indication of the triumphant creation of a brand new comedy hit but not something worthy of reporting.
Anonymity can help get the most out of a discussion when talking to someone and although honesty is crucial, when this honesty is not something that is particularly ‘rosy’ then this is just a fact that has to be lived with. Research is done for this very reason. If a new advertising campaign is terrible and never sees the light of day, it is because of the opinions and thoughts of focus groups, surveys and communities where these are first tested. If something rates poorly it is shelved. Just like Live from Planet Earth was in the end.