Market researchers are looking to new forms of interactive media to
assist in their work. But firms are finding these tools have their
limitations, writes David Murphy
Any form of market research, whether it’s a postal questionnaire, a
telephone interview or a face-to-face, has some cost associated with it.
So when new media such as interactive television and the Internet come
along, offering the potential for significant cost reductions, it’s not
surprising that the market research industry is keen to embrace them.
The Internet, for instance, must seem like a market researcher’s dream:
millions of people all over the world meeting in cyberspace to chat and
exchange opinions on everything from this week’s episode of Friends to
the role of chocolate in a developed economy. For an industry whose
raison d’etre is the acquisition of facts, figures, attitudes and
opinions, such a global forum could have been heaven-sent.
But what market researchers investigating the Internet appear to be
finding is that, for the moment at least, it presents as many obstacles
as it does opportunities.
Peter Comley, from Simon Godfrey Associates, has been investigating the
Internet for the past 12 months and set up an SGA Web site last
December. He sees several benefits in using the Internet as a market
research tool within a narrowly-defined target audience.
‘As a way of getting to certain target groups, it’s great,’ says Comley.
‘Anything to do with IT, business people, early adopters and youth
But in those three words: ‘Certain target groups’ lie many of the
Internet’s problems. Internet penetration in the UK is still low, with
only 2% of UK households and around 5% of businesses having access. The
profile of the typical Internet user is so narrowly defined that it can
be ruled out as a source of any kind of representative sample. It’s a
problem not lost on market research companies, as Richard Jameson,
director of IT research at NOP, which runs an Internet User Profile
‘When researching on the Internet, the basic problems are response
rates, self-selection and self-completion,’ he says. ‘These are all the
problems that postal researchers had historically, in that you’ve got to
persuade a big proportion of any given sample to respond before you’re
sure that it’s a representative proportion.
‘So, if you put a questionnaire on a Web site, or even put an advert in
more traditional media, saying ‘Please fill in our questionnaire on this
Web site’, what you’ll get is primarily the extremely heavy, frequent
users, who are very technically minded, so they don’t mind doing that
sort of thing.’
For these reasons, Jameson says that NOP would not yet consider doing
anything representative via the Internet. Until more people have access
to the Internet, the problems of self-selection and its lack of
representation will continue to restrict its usefulness as a tool.
Research International’s David Walker believes the Internet can be
useful to market researchers, as long as they accept it for what it is.
‘If you want to talk to technical people or academics it’s great, but if
you want to talk to a representative sample of Joe Public, it’s not
going to happen. You’ve got to recognise what you can and can’t use on-
line research for. You’ve got to accept its limitations.’
Problems of self-selection and self-completion are not the only ones
restricting the Internet’s appeal as a market research medium. Basic
techniques such as questionnaire design must be rethought.
‘If you conduct a survey via e-mail,’ says Peter Comley, ‘you are stuck
with an ASCII text file. You can’t bold it, you can’t underline it and
most e-mail readers only allow a 72-character line length, so that’s
something else you have to think about.’
It’s not surprising, given these difficulties, that some market
researchers have failed to be turned on by the Internet’s appeal. In the
past 15 months, MORI, in conjunction with accountancy firm Coopers &
Lybrand, has been studying the subject of interactive media for a
syndicate of major blue-chip clients from the retail, computer, airline
and financial services sector.
Looking at applications, which will be developed over the next five
years, including video-, TV-, and games-on-demand, electronic news
services, home shopping and teleworking, MORI has been investigating
consumer demand while Coopers & Lybrand has been looking at the supply
side to identify supply and demand mismatches.
While the results of the research are confidential to the two companies’
clients, MORI’s director of consumer research, Mike Riddler, has learnt
enough to come to some forthright conclusions.
‘We don’t regard using the Internet as a source of market research
information as a valid approach,’ argues Riddler ‘because attempting to
conduct a survey on the Internet means you have a self-selecting sample.
Only those people who want to reply will reply and you can’t be at all
sure that they, or the opinions they hold, are representative of
Internet users. So the Internet, is not an acceptable source of
Given the restrictions and the problems, why bother? Well, for certain
types of research, the Internet has some fervent supporters. SGA’s Peter
Comley believes it comes into its own for group discussions.
‘With an on-line discussion,’ says Comley, ‘you have an immediate
transcript, already in computer form, and the client can get involved
from anywhere in the world.’
NOP’s Richard Jameson concurs: ‘There are a number of potential
benefits. If you’re talking about a sensitive subject...(the
respondents) don’t have to sit there and say what they’re doing and what
they’re thinking in front of other people.
‘Another key benefit, particularly in business markets, is that in a
group discussion you’ll get some characters who are dominant and
knowledgeable about their subject, and if you’re not careful, you won’t
get an even spread of response, because everyone will feel overawed. In
an on-line discussion that doesn’t tend to happen.’
Many research companies point to the ease with which people interested
in a particular subject or hobby, no matter how obscure, can be
recruited via newsgroups to take part in research projects, whether
conducted by electronic or traditional media.
Robert Duncan, who has his own market research company in Canada and
lectures on the subject at the British Columbia Institute of Technology,
believes that research on the Internet dovetails nicely with the trend
towards niche marketing.
‘Over here, marketing is becoming less mass-market oriented,’ says
Duncan, ‘through direct marketing and database marketing. People are
interested in really small niches; I don’t think people market to the
general population as much and I’m not sure those representative samples
are relevant for anything except absolute mass marketing, where you’re
targeting everybody, say, for political research.’
While the Internet hogs the limelight, it’s not the only new medium.
Cable companies like Videotron have experimented with interactive TV
services and when BSkyB launches its own digital broadcasts soon, it
will offer the potential for interactivity and the possibility of real-
time data capture for broadcasters and advertisers.
In September 1994, the Cambridge iTV (interactive television) trial was
launched, bringing together 20 organisations involved in providing and
creating services, and exploring commercial relationships within an
interactive environment. These included Tesco, the BBC, NatWest, the
Post Office, IPC magazines, ITN and NOP.
An ICL Media server was used to distribute programming to the homes of
the 100 triallists and to retrieve viewer data. NOP research allowed the
iTV partners to assign demographic information to the core data. The
data was collated into a report.
In addition, NOP distributed two interactive, multiple-choice
questionnaires to the homes, to be completed using a specially-designed
Alan Higgs, director of media research at NOP, is enthusiastic about the
trial. He cites the low cost of the exercise and the ease of completion
(respondents complete the questionnaire in their own time and do not
need to send it back in the post) as the major benefits of interactive
It’s unlikely that either interactive TV or the Internet on their own
will replace traditional market research tools, but they may become
significant if used together. Consumer electronics company Mitsubishi
will begin selling a television with a built-in Web browser in Japan
later this year. When accessing the Internet from your armchair becomes
as easy as changing channels on the TV, maybe we will start to see these
new media take their place alongside established market research tools.
In the meantime, money remains the principal driving force behind the
interest in new media. ‘Cost has to be a major driver,’ says Jameson.
‘If everyone is logging in and doing their own thing, the one thing you
don’t need is an interviewer, so you don’t have the expenses associated
with a face-to-face or telephone interview.’